Author’s note: This is a fiction piece. In writing it, I wanted to experiment with a braided, more lyric and dreamlike structure. The piece surrounds grief and is explored in both abstractions as well as in more literal prose.
The forest dripped in mist and smelled of freshly churned dirt. My bare feet sank into scolding vines and twisted roots. I lifted my foot with difficulty as a slant of pale yellow slid through the cracks of pine trees. The sound of Miles Davis’ jazz number, “’Round Midnight” was faint in the distance;the saxophone was smooth and sounded like my mother swinging her hips in the kitchen to soundless music, sliding the drawers open and boiling tea.
I followed the sound and sank deeper into the filth. My chest felt tight and I clenched my fists into a ratty, blue wool coat. A drop of rain slid off a leaf and drug itself across the planes of my face.
Light slunk across the gray-green table. My chin slid on the palm of my hand, wrapped in drowsiness. A voice murmured on the intercom and I fell into consciousness.
The community college cafeteria was shaded in pale green interrupted by a yellow stripe. I knitted my legs tight together, elbows close to my side. I scanned my schedule and had an hour to waste. Bodies mingled past me, voices that knew one another. I picked at a thread on my ratty cardigan and watched it unravel.
I came home to my mother on the couch. She laid on her side with the remote control loose in her outstretched hand. The curtains were drawn and a Frasier rerun was on. I filled a glass of water and placed it by her head. Perching on the edge of the couch, my eyes traced the slant of light coming through the blinds in the otherwise dim room. The room smelt stale; tissues and a half-consumed plate of pasta sat on the rickety wood table.
Her chest rose and fell shakily in sleep as I reached for the remote, placing her cold hand back on the couch. I made myself a cup of coffee and walked upstairs. I sprawled out on the bed. I reached for my Walkman sitting on the desk, and played Belle and Sebastian’s album “Boy with the Arab Strap.” My mother’s snores downstairs melded to the twinkling melodies and the vocalist’s slouchy, wavering notes. From the view of my window, complete with a frilly reading area, I watched cars drive by in transient blurs.
I came upon a hill and climbed upward. A clearing of trees revealed a small waterfall and creek as the rain slid down my back. Blurred animals scurried in search of shelter. The mist became less dense as I moved up. A robin laid on the ground; its wing twitched. The fog made it look hazy as a warbled whistle escaped from its throat. I bent down and removed a twig jammed into its wing.
My lips formed and ‘O’ and I filled the air with my own unpracticed music, a sound more like breathing than a whistle.
I swung my legs over my bed. I heard my father downstairs making a smoothie. The churning sound jarred my lethargic senses. He was carrying on a conversation with my mother, mostly one-sided.
When I was a child she would come to my room in the morning humming softly before touching my shoulder.
“Wake up, Liz.”
She wore a pair of high-waisted jeans and an old t-shirt. Her hair was soft and naturally black, framing her face in unkempt waves. She sat on the edge of my bed and braided my hair, occasionally reaching for the coffee and buttered toast she made each morning. She kept potted plants in each window. After braiding my hair, she watered the plants in my windowsill, singing softly while the sun wrapped itself around her olive skin.
I drummed my fingers along my comforter and placed my feet on the ground, an exhaustive act. Going downstairs, my father looked at me over his shoulder. A tiredness pinched his lips as he smiled. He had laid my mother’s breakfast, joined with a glass of water and two different pills sitting side by side, even though she had gone back to the master bedroom.
“I made lunch for you. Curry. Grandma’s recipe.”
“Thanks,” I mirrored his tight smile as he slid a plate to me.
“Your mother slept well last night. She was able to eat some pasta before she went to bed. Do you want a ride to school? I don’t mind; it’ll be on my way to her appointment. I think grandma is going to pick her up later.” His sentences ran together, fast and mangled. He sipped on his drink. A coffee stain marked his gray button-up. He rose as a noise came from the master bedroom and wrung his hands.
The halls felt narrow as I walked towards College Algebra. The sound of curry sloshed around in my lunch pail and reminded me of the broken washing machine in my youth. My mother would prop a chair against the door to keep it from popping open, the whirring was dissonant with her hums. I’d sit on the cold tile floor to smell the swell of detergent. My father folded the clothes over his knee, relishing in the warm fabric across his scratchy hands.
Sliding into the left-hand desk, I pulled out my moleskin notebook. My hand slumped against my chin and I used the other to scribble down notes and doodle in the margins. The numbers seemed to slip off the whiteboard, escaping consciousness.I attempted to move forward, but the robin began to fade into the undergrowth. Vines and tendrils of mud ensnared it. A squawk rose from underneath and jazz music returned—I recognized it as Charles Mingus from a record my parents played. It was damning–saxophones slipping and drums like splintering wood.
I attempted to move forward, but the robin began to fade into the undergrowth. Vines and tendrils of mud ensnared it. A squawk rose from underneath and jazz music returned—I recognized it as Charles Mingus from a record my parents played. It was damning–saxophones slipping and drums like splintering wood.
The robin became transparent and I felt myself slipping backward into the warm atmosphere.My father sat on the edge of a white bed with metal barriers on the side. An IV dripped. I slipped my shoes off and wool socks clasped my legs. The sky was gray outside. The sound of traffic whined beneath us, the breath of society. A half-eaten cup of applesauce was by my side. I glanced at my father. We used to sit with each other on the porch, when we still had time to relax and read beside one another. His books were often stained; he read them in the bathtub, while drinking coffee, and after work with dinner. My books were clean; I never creased the edges of my pages to hold my place and was careful not to stain them.
My father sat on the edge of a white bed with metal barriers on the side. An IV dripped. I slipped my shoes off and wool socks clasped my legs. The sky was gray outside. The sound of traffic whined beneath us, the breath of society. A half-eaten cup of applesauce was by my side. I glanced at my father. We used to sit with each other on the porch, when we still had time to relax and read beside one another. His books were often stained; he read them in the bathtub, while drinking coffee, and after work with dinner. My books were clean; I never creased the edges of my pages to hold my place and was careful not to stain them.
On his knee sat a book, hardly worn. He reached his hand to my mother and touched the bottom of her wrist. Her veins were like the roots of her now dying plants, sitting in every windowsill, making our house cohesive. Her eyes slit open and a sloppy smile rose on her face. Her skin looked translucent. She circled her thumb around the bottom of his hand. The book fell off his knee and I reached my hand forward, placing it on my mother’s knee.
We were at a pool and I was young. Our hands clasped one another and we spun in the water. We were swirling, chlorinated water splashing upwards and dropping back down; it littered our faces. My mother made whooshing sounds as my father laughed; I wore floaties around my arms as a song by Pavement played over the speaker system. The sky was clear and a group of robins were hopping in a nearby puddle.
I brought the water to my mother’s lips but she wouldn’t take it.
“It was beautiful,” my father said, eyes unfocused. “Everything was so beautiful.” His head slunk forward as my mother closed her eyes.
Her hair had thinned and it obscured her face. I rested my hand on my father’s shoulder and he leaned into her. A nurse came in and gave us her condolences. The Algebra from earlier was stuck in my head, wandering numbers displacing themselves across the sterilized room. My chest felt tight and my limbs heavy; the nurse was talking but I couldn’t hold onto her words. The clearing was filling with mist again and I fell to the ground. Coltrane played to the tune of my mother’s hums. I was a child and she was by my bedside pointing at constellations through my window. She wore flannel PJ bottoms and a Sonic Youth t-shirt. I was a child and she was my mother and she told me that she loved me.
The forest was screeching and the mist warped into fire. I looked beside me and saw my father’s back turned, staring into the breadth between trees. I called to him and voice felt lost against the walls of the forest. He turned to me and was suddenly inches away. He held a dead robin in his hands and we breathed in the rising smoke.
A streamlined beeping filled my senses and seeped into the corners of the hospital room. The sheets my mother laid on were damp with sweat and my father’s forehead rested on her arms. He was murmuring a prayer in his native Sanskrit, which I never tried to learn from him despite him asking over and over. Curry lapped at my sides, the only thing I had consumed that day. My cheeks were salty and my body felt warm and cold at the same time. It searched for a way outside of itself.
I started humming, quietly and then loudly. I hummed over her body, rubbing her hand with my fingers. The nurse tried to speak, but I couldn’t hear her. A flood of workers poured into the room and I scooted back; I rested my head on my father’s shoulder. I picked up his book and laid it on his knee. He hummed with me, as the radio bristled with sputtering jazz. Bill Evans. “Let’s Go Back to the Waltz.”
“Love you,” I whispered, voice caught in the airless room.