It started happening at her most frail moment in the chemo ward, the drip in her arm dosing her into semi-consciousness: The flickering lights, the unfurling of a dark presence in the hallway, bony finger beckoning. One day, she stood apart from herself and joined the darkness, floating, cold.
My name is Dyta and my husband and I moved over here from Poland when we were newlyweds. I was excited to live in the States because I had these beliefs like so many young Polish people I knew at the time: That Americans were so kind and so friendly and that unbelievable things happened here, just like in the commercials. It took a while for my American husband to convince me my beliefs were naïve and ill-founded. Had he known me as a youth in Poland he would have seen too why it was so important for me to believe only positive things about people. I was one of those students who was teased and harassed by peers, females as much as males. I truly believed America was the chance to start over and a chance for others to see me in a new light.
I did find a sense of liberation when I audited a fiction writing class at the University of Central Florida soon after arriving and settling in. I found that the students were interested in me simply because I was Polish and now living here. Everything was interesting to them so that I could be the greatest dullard from Warsaw for all they knew but because I was an exotic dullard I had more value than I did at home. The novelty would wear off though I didn’t let myself think about that at first. I was enjoying my new writing class and using my imagination fully, as if someone, or the circumstances, had given me full permission and encouragement and I poured out all of myself for the first time.
I found a group of girlfriends from my class. We were happy people, the four of us, and hopeful and young. We all seemed to enjoy each other and be at the same level in this artistic hobby that was new to all four of us: crafting fiction. We went out frequently, talked on the phone, we compared our stories, nervous as we were to share them with the wider class. For years this went on between us and we grew in our writing as we married and had families.
As is true to life I am learning as I get older, cracks always show, don’t they. I became sick, so sick in fact I had a hard time concentrating on my work and keeping up with my friends who were getting into journals and being accepted to graduate school. I had breast cancer, stage three. My husband was so supportive of me at that time, and bless him, was being patient throughout so we may begin a family when the treatment had finished. I felt like I was falling more and more behind in my life, was losing more of his interest as my looks fell apart and I became more of a patient.
My friends, busy with their lives and I assumed trying not to be sad, avoided seeing me or talking to me. I felt I had hit upon something dark in this country. People were friendly and bright when everything was going well. But people ignored what they didn’t want to know or see and this included sick people, even their friends who are sick. I began to feel a certain way about my new friends that started my deep rift with them. It made me yearn for some of the old ways of my people. We were used to sadness, took it in stride, even to the death, mourning beforehand what we were afraid of.
I realized too I was just as guilty of shallowness. I had loved my new friendships for that wave of a bubble of good feeling they gave me, not for anything deeper or more meaningful. It had suited me. But now with no hair, no abilities, little humor, things were quite different.
It was unfortunate that after my recovery, I divorced from my husband. Too many things had happened, or not happened, between us, and we didn’t survive the illness and the aftermath. He just seemed to lose interest.
A few months later as I was growing my hair back and beginning the transition to life, one of the members of the writing group, Evie, called to inquire about the beach house I had shared with my ex’s family. She left a message on my phone: Do I still own a share in the house? If so, could we go there as a group sometime? Maybe we could all do some writing and sharing our work?
I’ll have to admit I was a little irritated. Evie had not inquired about how I was feeling. She had not made any attempt to see me while I was undergoing treatment. But I was also still in the mode where some of my feelings were discounted by my sense that I must still be learning about this culture. Furthermore, my leniency had really entered in with chemo brain. It was hard to separate out reality still, to make sound judgments, and so I tried to withhold judgements as much as possible, while at the same time experiencing frustration. And Evie was married and had her first baby. She was perfectly healthy and publishing, had been accepted into a prestigious MFA. It took a few more months before I was able to return her call.
When we got together again for the first time since I started treatment, I thought I could sense both the condescension and the competition. Was I writing again or was I up to it? Self publishing certainly was for the declasse wasn’t it? And who didn’t know about the hierarchy of journals? To sell yourself short to the bottom rungs was to doom your career to the eternal stagnation of the unknown. Do I have a platform? I definitely need a platform or I would never be taken seriously.
Tacia caught me in the bathroom where I was refreshing my lipstick. She was drunk, something that never changed. “You sure are a HANDSOME woman, aren’t you?” And she laughed, leaning into me, observing her smile in the mirror, she was usually pretty taken with herself. She was not giving me a compliment. It occurred to me I had been magically transported back to my school in Warsaw again. I had far less hair, though. It was now just a very short mannish length. And I had more wrinkles, more flesh.
At the table, I drank my wine, as much as I could and still manage to make it home.
I determined I would give Evie the key but would not go. I envisioned myself alone at home with the cat feeling more peace knowing the group was out of town plotting literary maneuvers while I wrote modest pieces and prayed for inclusion somewhere. Besides I had come to enjoy my afternoons working shelving books at the bookstore. Once I had allowed to let them use the house, I would never feel obligated to again. I don’t even know why I felt obligated in the first place but for some reason I did, maybe because early on, when we were all seemingly close friends I had foolishly said something to them about sharing a time away together at the beach.
In Slavic mythology, places beside water are not always safe. There are female spirits there who are sometimes mermaids or sirens who lure men to their deaths. They are the souls of those who have either had evil committed against them and so they bring about more evil and tragedy or they have committed suicide and live on as the undead, in misery.
I am not saying I would wish anyone evil. But I do know myself well enough now to know I think I know better what lurks inside the hearts of men and women. I am not as naïve as I once was. And I’m not as naïve about myself as I once was. I know of what I am capable. But also as well I respect my level of tolerance.
I am not saying Boginki or Rusalki exist anywhere, but who is to say they do not. Having known about them from childhood and reflecting on my disappointed feelings as an adult, I have more sympathy for those mythological beings who act out of passion, out of rage.
I stay away from people who do not know me or wish to know me, who do not wish to walk with me in my darkest moments. They do not wish to know me in my darkness. Trust me, they do not. I yearn for my old mother Poland some nights. I think of how foolish I once was. I wonder if I should have married and allowed my husband to take me away from all the things I had ever known. But Mother Poland and my family are with me always in both my brightest and my darkest heart. America is a pale imitation of a culture, of a medium for life, though she is mine now in all my loneliness. She is my ugly stepchild. But still, she is mine, and I hold her dear.
The rooms of my townhome were lonely when my son left for university, those rooms absent of his intelligent yet feral boyishness, the male version of everything I could possibly pour into him in the time available to me. Yet he had always been his very own person. He had his own humor, his own style, his own way of seeing the world, his own way of moving through it.
On the day he left, I had put everything I could of mine into his car, everything he cared to take – my old guitar my parents gave me years ago, a clothes’ steamer I had just bought for myself but that he liked using, food, drinks. I stood with my dog on my balcony while he drove away. I cried while descending on me was a new feeling, something alien and unwelcome.
The only other times I had something close to such a feeling was several years previous, a month after separating from my husband, having scrambled to get funding to rent a loft apartment. How empty I had been. And I slept on a pile of comforters in my bedroom until my furniture arrived. Years later, the sense of emptiness returned when I was diagnosed with cancer. The loneliness of treatment was immense and impenetrable, like a silent judgmental father, watching, waiting, providing no answers or guarantees.
In summary, as I sometimes saw it on my darker days, the middle years of my life had seen me without my spouse, without my health, without my son.
I felt sorry for myself when my son left. I considered myself to be dull and banal for even feeling this way while I also thought of my son driving away to be with his friends. I looked up “empty nesting” on the computer and found descriptions of the dangers: depression, weight gain, loss of purpose, a messy house, a messy appearance.
I would have to force myself to do things, no one would be around to know if I cleaned the kitchen, made my bed, even fixed my hair and makeup. I would be doing things only for myself. And like many of my friends, I had grown up within a subculture of expectation. My ex had always told me, in criticism, that I was “externally motivated,” never one to do much unless someone would be around to witness the outcome.
That night, I closed down the house, shutting the downstairs bedroom door, the door to the room that I had thought to make into my study one day but it was still a bedroom. I wondered why I even bothered to close the door. But I always did that, even if there was no reason to protect someone’s privacy or keep anyone away. I generally liked closed doors inside a house. On the second floor, I turned off all the lights except for one I kept on through the night, one beside the sofa. I turned off the electric fireplace and blew out the candle.
On the third floor, I closed my son’s bedroom door and my own bedroom door, settling into a night in bed beside the blue light of the computer, a somewhat sad state of affairs maybe but it wasn’t so bad either. There was no one to consult with and I could watch whatever I pleased, or browse the web, or write a story if I couldn’t sleep. I could stay up and leave the light on until all hours.
Before I knew it, the hour reached midnight and I was hungry. I pulled on a robe over a matching gown, a set I had bought as consolation for seeing a child off. I slid my feet into house slippers, also a recent indulgence. I would make cocoa. I hobbled down the stairs on arthritic knees made worse by the chemo of years previous.
When I reached the second floor, the floor housing the living room and kitchen, I spotted something surprising, just out of the corner of my eye. I could have sworn it was a woman, tall and blond, large and solid, stepping down the stairs to the guest bedroom, her hair brushed back like mine, her elbow bent as if she were carrying something in her hand, a hot mug of tea or milk. She looked just like me, I mused, for a moment.
I scurried to the landing, there was no one, nor were there signs there has been anyone. But I could swear she was wearing my peignoir set but in a darker color, the other set I ordered, and she wore slippers, like mine. Was she carrying a cup of cocoa?
I summoned my dog to accompany me to the first floor, but she stood on the upper level and watched me as I motioned for her. I relented, going on, making my way down.
I opened the first floor bedroom door quickly, as if to quell any dread or hesitation. But there was nothing. No one. I checked the front porch. It appeared someone had been sitting on my outdoor sofa, though that happens sometimes. People will come and sit there because they find it inviting. I arranged the cushions back to where they were.
I checked the garage. It was open. I had left it open when I went out to do errands earlier that day! Anyone could have easily accessed the house!
Yet if anyone wanted to harm me, they would have done it by now.
I closed the garage door. Maybe whoever it was had appreciated the extra toothbrushes and toothpaste, the towels and soaps I kept in the ground floor bathroom.
That I wasn’t more bothered puzzled me. That I actually was more interested in being of use to someone, more interested in that than in my own safety alarmed me slightly, but actually not that much.
What had been the most painful thing, years earlier when I landed in my empty apartment midlife? What had given me the sense of landing in a painted concrete mausoleum? What had made me feel dead and ineffectual, invisible to the outside world, no more use than a corpse? That sense of my own disconnectedness and uselessness! No one needed me!
And now, someone needed me!
I wondered if she would speak to me or at least write to me if I jotted down some questions. I threw a load of towels in the wash so they would be fresh. I began a loaf of bread.
It was about 1 a.m. I lay down on the sofa. I awoke to the alarm I had set for the rising dough.
The woman was sitting in the chair opposite. She had been watching me doze off, my small dog in the crook of my arm.
My dog began to growl, a sound she rarely made. She wasn’t much of a watch dog. And how had she missed this woman coming into my living room?
“Who are you?” I said. “What do you want with me?”
My earlier thoughts about helping her were displaced by my current alarm at her proximity. She had come into my space when I was vulnerable. What had she planned to do? I had thought she was exactly like me, but on closer inspection, she was much younger, she could have been my daughter. She could hurt me, I thought. She looked physically very strong.
She brought her hand to her mouth, mimicking eating. She wanted the bread I was making.
I had her lie down on the sofa while I put the loaf in the oven. Her hair was fine and long like mine had been at that age. She had no ring on her finger though by the time I was her age I was married and pregnant.
“Where is your family?” I said to her, hovering over the couch like an attendant nurse. I handed her a cup of juice, leftovers of my son’s favorite drink.
She drank but did not answer, only laid down again. When the loaf made a hollow thump under my nail, I took it out of the oven and wrapped it up in a tea towel. I handed it to her, along with the bottle of cranberry juice. She took it and went downstairs but by the time I hobbled down to the ground floor, she was gone, leaving the front door open a crack, the same carelessness I had shown in leaving the garage door open.
Who was she, this young woman who didn’t care to close my door or care what I wanted, who didn’t speak?
I checked the toothbrush in the bathroom. She had used it. I could smell the shampoo and soap, sense the dampness of the room.
She had left wearing my gown and robe, a pair of my slippers. I remembered the story of a friend who had previously been homeless, how he was forced to move from place to place at night so no one was wise to him. Why hadn’t she stayed? Did she not believe I would protect her?
Yet I felt less lonely. Less useless. Less dead. I would leave the door open a crack for her the next night. The morning after, I bought more flour and yeast and oil. I would add cranberries and nuts to some loaves and cheese and herbs to others. Maybe there were other homeless people who wanted my bread, others who could use it to stay full and warm at night. I stocked up on gallons of juice and water.
At the oncologist’s that afternoon, I was told my recent test showed rampant issues.
The cancer had returned.
Very soon, I would die.
Sister, do you remember when, scared in the old manse in Texas, you and I whirled and whirled through the hallway during a thunderstorm? Do you remember when I left you in the hall so I could go find our mother? I remember what she said to me when I entered her dark room: Where is your sister? Why are you not taking care of her? Why did you leave her alone?
Sister, do you remember when, many years later, you held my hand while I had my hair buzzed off? Do you remember when I was sick, when I had cancer? Do you remember going to my appointments and asking questions when I was weak? Do you remember begging relatives to come to my surgery when everyone seemed to have better things to do? Had I died you would have arranged my funeral, you would have seen me honored.
I wanted to say to our mother then, when I survived: Here is my sister, Mother. She has taken good care of me. She has not left me alone. I will always be in debt to my sister. She loves me. And I love her.
for National Siblings Day, April 10, 2019
She had a date, Ms. Myska. A miracle, really, considering it had only been a month ago that she lay on the operating table awaiting anesthesia, uncertain if cancer would take her down with her uterus.
And here she was, healthy as a new chick, sitting across the table from a smiling man with retro looking glasses, a man who knew how to choose a restaurant, to order, to talk. It hardly felt deserved, actually, Ms. Myska being somewhat shy, somewhat of a scurrying mouse, somewhat worried about her problems though she put on her best face.
Still, her face was betraying her. Sangria was the culprit. Sulfites, likely, in the wine. She began to feel her bottom lip plump out into a perfect rectangle and she wondered if the man saw, though thankfully the lights were dim.
She hoped she didn’t seem awkward talking to him because she was trying to talk while worrying. But to Ms. Myska worrying and doing something else at the same time was like walking and chewing gum.
The hysterectomy, the next phase in her fight against cancer, a fight to stay one step ahead of the reaper, saw her experience with a new drug. And it plumped out her lips and caused them to be red and chapped. This had been an unexpected. Though the swelling seemed to come and go – some days she felt she was over it, and some days her lips seemed to be stretching the boundaries of her skin – she was resigned to the permanence of the situation and sometimes observed the phenomenon with curiosity, like a scientist, or sometimes with horror, like a Japanese citizen in a monster flick, shaken to the core by a walking lizard exploded beyond all reason in size and ferocity.
As she watched her date order their tapas she hoped her lips did not cause her to blurt out any of her presently closely guarded feelings and thoughts. Here were a few: “Hey, you are even cuter than I imagined.” Or: “What would it be like to kiss you?” Or: “I think it’s really sexy when a guy knows how to order. Total hotness.”
Her lips had a serious side too. They wanted to say things like: “How come your other relationships didn’t work out?” Or: “Tell me how you feel about being a widower.” Or: “Do you snore loudly? Do you have flatulence? Would you mind if I did on occasion? Or minded if I enjoyed burping very loudly? Would you mind if I occasionally struggle with insomnia? I talk to my dog constantly, is that a problem? I sometimes cry, unprovoked, is that a big deal? Messy house? Financial messes?”
Instead she said: “I love making coconut shrimp. Yum.” He was a cook too and they compared notes.
When they were off to their cars at the top of the garage under the inky sky, they hugged goodnight.
It was only later, in her car, driving home, that she realized he had turned his head sideways to kiss her.
She was glad her lips had not picked up on this. Her lips only realized it later, with her brain.
She liked him.
But she was glad.
Ms. Myska’s upcoming operation had altered the course of her daily thoughts and interaction with the world. The surgeon told her he would use robotic arms to go into her womb and extract her cancerous uterus. Always before learning of such she had a mousy nervous way, an odd way, that people noticed and remarked upon, albeit through veiled observant glances and uncomfortable laughter. And now, Ms. Myska’s nerves had sent her over the edge. In fact, she had come to believe she could interact with the insensate world, something she kept a secret but something she felt nonetheless.
It started with her fear of death. Mrs. Malvoline, at the weekly Bible study luncheon, had told her when learning of the upcoming procedure: “Well you know Mitzy Bowzer had that done, all fancy Dan, the surgery modern as a toaster, and she lost her bowels from between her legs. Slipped right through.”
This during the chicken salad salad sandwiches at a table mounded with fruit in the center around which the ladies chattered about their families and their diets.
Ms. Myska laid her croissant sandwich down on her plastic plate and held a napkin to her lips.
Greta Malvoline had not known of or could not have guessed Ms. Myska’s feverish sweats in the middle of night, her nightmares of being chased through the town by robotic arms that could move in 360 degree rotation, arms that played with her hair, put things in her grocery basket, made her meals – gourmet style – far superior to her humble culinary efforts. And now, in waking life, arms would take the organ that had once held her baby.
The room where twelve ladies sat around the luncheon table in the church, twelve ladies strong, good as the twelve apostles, was too close for Ms. Myska, the now cloying odor of fresh baked bread and fruit overwhelming. She grabbed her purse and scurried to the door. Outside the church at the memorial garden where the cremated remains of former parishioners sat in jars. She felt sick but she wanted to show respect for the dead.
“Oh earth,” she said, “If I die, will you hold me?”
Even Ms. Myska knew she was being a bit dramatic. The surgeon had reassured her he had performed thousands of robotic surgeries without mishap. And the upside was a quick recovery.
She felt a breeze then, a caress. The leaves rattled “yes.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. She had her answer, then. She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like this was a reassurance.
She must think of something pretty to be buried in, she thought, looking around at the colorful urns where others’ ashes were stored. Were jars standard or could she choose a favorite?
She thought of her great grandmother’s ginger jar. When she was a girl she had brushed against the pie crust table where it was displayed. The jar broke into many pieces. Rather than scold her, her great grandmother had gathered the pieces and glued them back together, teaching her about the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi. “The Japanese believe, my little one, that a repaired vessel is even more beautiful because it is the scars that show uniqueness and beauty. Artists often highlight the cracks in a repaired piece of pottery using gold. It is a lesson in resilience. A repaired vessel is a sign of soul.” And her great grandmother gently brushed her cheek with a crooked and withered finger.
One of the items Ms. Myska procured for herself after her great grandmother’s death was the repaired old ginger jar. Ms. Myska’s mother, a practical woman, was in the process of tossing her odds and ends. The jar was sitting on top of a pile of old books and newspapers. Nula spirited it away. “That’s useless, you know,” said her mother. Nula ignored her. She kept her magic jar in her room beside her pet rock Harry and her matryoshka doll collection.
The afternoon of the earth’s reassurance, she was happy to not return to the ladies who by now were commencing a study and discussion of the Messianic prefigurings of Jesus. It had nothing to do with her. The irrelevance of this arcane type of scholasticism coupled with a stomach heavy with a rich lunch inspired her departure. To stay might have brought about drowsing during the lecture, adding yet another incidence of eccentricity to her reputation.
At home, she retrieved her great grandmother’s blue and white ginger jar from the china cabinet. She kept it in the place where the little interior light of the cabinet could highlight it. If she looked carefully, she could see the places where her grandmother had lovingly glued the pieces back together. She placed it on her dining room table and sat before it.
“Little jar,” she said, “Will you hold the ashes of my bones when I am dead?”
She couldn’t be completely sure, not when she thought of it later, but she could have sworn she heard the lid of the jar rattle lightly against the lip. Maybe it was just her nervous agitation upsetting the table slightly and disturbing the jar, but it seemed perhaps she had her answer.
Ms. Myska buzzed about the kitchen making her dinner of chili beans and cornbread and feeding her dog. It took a great deal of time for the beans to cook and though it was early afternoon she anticipated a late night dinner.
On the porch she sat with her needlework. The sky was busily forming and reforming clouds as she followed the pattern for the large splashy peonies on the printed canvas. It was pleasurable to push the colored yarn through and know that this was her only chore for the afternoon. Years ago she had entertained her husband’s – now ex husband’s – clients with elaborate parties. Years ago she had raised a teenage son. Years ago she had scurried around a library large as a city block looking for patron’s requests. Now all that was required was the simple tent stich. Her tiny white dog sat beside her on the small porch swing.
She had a sudden worry for her. Who would care for the little thing were something to happen?
“Sky,” she said, “Will you watch over my dog Belle when I’m dead? Watch over her to protect her? Protect her as a mother?”
The clouds bowed up then forming a perfect circle like a mother’s arms. Miraculous! Ms. Myska had never felt so close to the sky and she stayed outside on her porch until the summer storm blew her indoors.
That evening, the whole of her house bathed in gold while Ms. Myska ate her supper. It was as if it were a crack in an artisan’s pot that had been repaired with gold. The whole of her life was a history of her scarring and repair and for the first time in weeks Ms. Myska lay in her soft bed with her dog at her feet and slept without nightmares.
Go here to acquire Abigail Moses’ wonderful work of art above “Kintsugi.”
At five in the afternoon in December the dark skin of night closes in over day. Across the street from Sabina’s townhouse the last glimmer of gold, the fire sky, simmers through the pines, the scrub oak, the palms, and she wishes to hold onto that moment of the final sun forever, a diamond in her hand, its flash, its promise. But of course there is no stopping the night. It shuts down a liveliness in her as if it were the coming of age itself, as if it were death itself come unbidden.
He would have called her melodramatic, “he” being her ex, of course. She would have said she was merely acknowledging her reality, this sense of being subject.
And so she plowed through on this Monday, with her experience, in this melodramatic frame, wondering this: What to provide her son for his dinner when he begins his week with her. When the earth shuts down, this is no small task. The weeks her child is with his father she eats only leftovers, scours the crisper and cabinets for anything that would serve as a food source. She is juggling bills and doctors and medicine and a crumbling house and car. She eats things past their due date, sometimes way past. One time she got sick.
When it is time for her son to spend Christmas week with her she knows if she appears desperate or unorganized, she risks losing contact. She must address her responsibilities as dark skies threaten to sap her and so she takes a risk: She texts her son asking him for to pick up carryout on his way home from soccer practice.
“Does your ex think you unfit to parent?” This from her therapist months ago when Sabina was ordered to come off of a controlled substance for anxiety. She was strung out and barely able to carry a thought from one sentence to the next. She sometimes forgot words altogether. And yet this one word rammed through her: unfit. The word reverberated in her skull with no pill to protect her. This seemed unfair, outrageous, even, that she is both required to be free of a substance and then criticized for her withdrawal. After all, she and her eighteen year old had been through worse – the threat of her death and chemo treatments – and come out together, it seemed.
She left her therapist, sent her a text and asked her about that word – “unfit” – but then didn’t really try to understand her therapist’s return text, just told her she wasn’t going to see her anymore. Sufficiently vague. And when the sky fell early the following winter, there was no pill to guard against the effects of that hour of darkness.
Though she could speak this December, “unfit” would never leave her. And it unnerved her that her ex might see the text to her son to help her secure food. Would he see this as “unfit?” It is amazing how many things come out in a divorce, over a conference table, a smooth blond wood surface in a room across the street from the fountain Sabina described in her first published piece which her then husband proudly framed for her and hung on their wall. And yet, years later, at the mediation: All the small slights, the things told in confidence, trotted out, the hurts.
But there is also this: Had she not bought real maple syrup for her husband and son when she was married? And after the divorce, when she bought an imitation brand to save money so she could buy pancake mix too, and health insurance, her son spoke of his friend’s house, where he ate “real syrup.” This became for her a secret symbol of families who had not been broken, and almost all families in her son’s conservative Christian school were still intact, a school where Sabina now felt like a pariah though she had once felt close to many of the women, where she had even been involved.
Somehow Sabina knew the Jesus of the Christian school would have actually been eating imitation syrup with the tax collectors and sinners, the broken, the unwashed people scrounging to eat in the face of powerful ruling religious classes.
And at the outset of her son’s soccer season this year, coinciding with early darkness and regrets, her son greets her after a game on the sidelines and calls another woman his mom. Why do all the dramas of our lives get enacted on fields? Is there so much intensity there, invisible, that we slip into it whether the field be in the shape of a rectangle or diamond? And though there are things that are redeemed, there are also things lost on fields never to be found again.
Still, Sabina’s contest has always been with the sky, not a person nor a disappointment related to a person, not a field nor a disappointment related to a field. And so, she faces the murdering night on this Monday of Christmas week, waiting for her son to bring sustenance, determined to serve pancakes with syrup even if she must boil brown sugar and water over a meager stove for want of money, the little bit of money having been transferred to the carryout and the stores for the gifts under the tree.
First published in Writing in a Woman’s Voice
A person should know she was she was driving over the train tracks, should be able to feel it under the wheels, Monique told Carl as she packed her white hat back into its box. Carl was sitting in her bedroom watching her as she changed her clothes.
“Three deaths, baby,” she said to him about recent train related incidents. The city had installed rubber casings on the tracks so drivers hardly registered the feel of the rails. The point was to make it easier on everyone’s suspension. Trains had been silenced too. No more trains blowing at the crossroads. And now people had died or been hurt because they didn’t know they were on the tracks. There had been no warning, no communication from the train.
She remembered with a shiver having barely escaped an oncoming train when she was with Aimee one afternoon. They were taking their sons and their classmates on a field trip. They had not known they were crossing a track, had not heard a train, until they were just past. Looking back on that day, she realized someone must have driven through the gates and broken them. Probably some drunk rich white kids because it was only in wealthy neighborhoods that “quiet zones” were established.
She had not told Carl about that day with Aimee. And now the silence with which Aimee eventually accepted her death from cancer seemed like that smooth ride over the tracks. She cried hot tears and Carl nuzzled her hair. She talked through things with Carl again, things she had said before, that Aimee hadn’t wanted any of them beside her when she was at the end of her illness, not even her husband and children. She wanted no one to see that last husk of what she had become. She had wanted to go quietly, without a fuss. Monique had not been allowed to be with her either. Aimee’s body had been cremated and put into a box.
Aimee was the only white woman Monique had ever been close to. She had been a pistol right after the diagnosis, had believed God would heal her because she wanted it that way, had come to her son’s baseball games hobbling on feet blistered by chemo. But when it was clear she would not live she instructed Monique to wear her Easter hat to the funeral. Aimee had always told her there were doves on Monique’s Easter hat, but they were simply high peaks of white chiffon. Monique had honored Aimee’s wishes and had worn the hat but she vowed to herself, while she sat in the white people’s church, not to make any more white friends.
First appeared in Trainwrite
Check out my new flash piece in a fabulous UK literary magazine Use Your Words. Merry Christmas! — Meg
· Santa Baby ·
by Meg Sefton
There is a man I see from the dating site I call Santa. He calls me Cupcake even though I asked him from the beginning to call me by my given name. He did once, in a text, but ever since, it’s been “Doll” or “Cupcake.” I wonder if he even really knows my name anymore. When I first started dating five years ago after my divorce from a twenty-year marriage, I had been overwhelmed and appalled by trying to date midlife, things were so different when I met and dated my ex. Plus, I had been raised and married into a religiously conservative subculture and when I started dating again, soon learned how sheltered I had been for most of my adult life.
Santa hangs Christmas lights from the roofs and eaves, ancient oak trees, and palms in the wealthiest suburb of…
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There were lots of people she used to sing for but now with the thyroid surgery, her voice had changed. She could talk, and whistle, but she couldn’t sing which was why the song of the caged parrot down the street inspired a sense of loss she would not have been able to describe had someone cared to ask. Whenever she walked her dog she would hear it. She had always wanted birds – finches, or even a parrot or cockatoo, – but now it looked likely, because of the cancer invading her body, any bird she may adopt now might outlive her.
A man in town sold pet health insurance and she was beginning to make her plans. She wanted her son to have her little white dog and knew he would need money to take care of her. He was not old enough to pay these expenses on his own. And a parrot was out of the question at this point. They could live to be 100 or more and she would be dead at 46.
She felt it, no matter what people said, no matter how much they told her to have a positive mindset. Buying a parrot now was an act of faith bordering on the ridiculous.
Every morning the parrot chirped from the third floor balcony down the street where she walked her dog. The bird was a part of how the real estate company was staging the property, he was part of their plan to sell the new orange painted homes.
Not far away, a woman was mauled by a black bear as she walked her dog. The cancer was about the same thing. What difference did it make, she would be gone, taken by something – whether it emerged from the forest – a madman or bear – or a malignancy in her body that grew until she succumbed. She hoped, at least, in the case of the woman confronting the bear, the dog managed to get away.
Which was why she sat across from the desk of the pet insurance agent. She signed every paper. She paid. She set up a plan for payments. The agent had no ring. She asked him to lunch. They ate nicoise salad in a restaurant where unlit chandeliers and stained glass panels hung from the ceiling. He said he had old movies on reels at home they could watch. He said they could dance to music on his jukebox.
A shaft of light poured in through the basement window where they were dancing. She was not expecting this. She considered asking him to draw up a separate policy for a parrot. The agent had nice leather shoes, smelled of bergamot oil, had a curl against his ear.
first published in beakful
anna Osu’s “walking on water,” flickr
Shuffle through the silent wood to worship, past loblollies and scrub oak hung with flowering vines, your sick feet, affected by the chemo, the nerve endings numb, barely registering your footfalls. The glittering lake beckons beyond the Bishop’s Walk and the Church of the Incarnation where someone sits at a piano, someone mixes water with wine, someone is blinded by the sun streaming through a window as they think about what they would like for dinner.
Step high over roots, concern yourself not with the sand slipping between your toes, breaking down your best sandals. Enjoy the sand and how it falls out of your shoe in a playful way because you cannot walk because of your numb feet and it is as if you are doing this on purpose, like when you were young and flopped your legs in front of you, flinging sand on your brother, on your sister, and you had more time then, all the time in the world.
It doesn’t matter you are late. You have nothing to contribute. There will always be voices in worship somewhere. There will always be worship. Not even the forest needs you though it will take you. There will always be bodies who, once animate, return to earth and you, no longer a child, see how it begins as you fall off out of time beginning with the feet that can no longer run, the flesh that is no longer thought of or desired by those in time, and you, having once participated in a chorus, live on an edge without recognizable features or breath, where eternity has caught up with you and you had thought yourself not ready and yet here you are, venturing on your own.
Those you thought should join you cannot follow through the divide, they cannot pass. You have tried to carry them but the overwhelming nature of their fears have led you to focus instead on the little white dog who waits for you on the edge of town, the new ferns that must be watered, the meals you will make with the ingredients you just bought at the market, the son who will be home from his father’s next week.
In the twilight worship hour, you must go alone through the loblollies and scrub oak hung with vine, the sparkling lake in the distance, until you reach the lip of it all, where the worshippers’ voices coalesce and become strongest, like a ring of sound around the world. And yet, you only see the glittering eye of the abyss in the distance and it is not in the depths of the earth but suspended and it is not dark but filled with light and fills the skies from the waters it takes from earth and one day you will be taken up from the earth and one day you will return again as rain.
Published in Ginosko Literary Journal #16