Dawna Kemper



Alone at night, I am charged with strapping my mother to the bed.

They said: if you can't control her, use the straps.

They said: if you can't stay awake, use the straps.

I try not to look at the gash on her belly, the sewn-up handiwork holding her skin on. The messy stitches infuriate me, the rude way they put her back together.

The straps are deluxe and quilted. The insides are cushioned, that is, if I can remember which way to turn them. Velcro. They attach with Velcro. When they rip open it's very nearly the most painful sound I've ever heard.

Let me go, my mother pleads again. Please. I'll be still.

This is a trick.

At night, I stare at the bed rails and whisper to her. In the dim light from the hallway, the rails loom over her.

A thin tube snakes down and bites her tender inside arm. The line dribbles her full of poppy juice. I can smell the poppies, sickly sweet, and sometimes, when I close my eyes, I see their red heads waving. Mother smiles. Sweet poppy juice coats her blood, her brain.

Next to the bed is a chair that sighs each time I sit down, and in this chair, I try not to sink. Dark. So heavy. I go under. And then, there goes Mother. Her shadow is trying to hoist itself over the far rail. I reach for the straps. Hush, lie back. When I grip her wrist it is pure bone. She is agitated. She rolls back and forth, gathering her power. One foot is lodged between the rails and kicking, rattling like a convict's tin cup. No. I cannot let that ankle snap. One snap will start a chain of tiny fractures that splinter into full-blown breaks traveling up through the network of her bones shattering until she becomes a limp skin container of broken. Her fist small and mighty comes out of nowhere and connects with my temple. When I shake off the stars, one leg is over the rail: she is trying to push herself up and off the pillow.

But. What if I let her go?

I see her bolting naked out the door and down the hall on weak bird legs—forget the elevator! – down the stairs, past the emergency room—too late!—out the sliding doors, past the parked cars, into the street—ha! against the light!—gasping but not looking back, not even at me, she hurdles shopping carts leaps strollers jumps mailboxes—running running running over the edge of the world into a dropping sun that swallows her.



After the funeral, there is nothing to be done. I sit on the edge of my bed, encased from neck to knee in virgin black wool. I stare at my useless hands until they become something monstrous.



On the night before she died, my mother began to cough. I turned on the bedside lamp. The light was weak, but I saw something flop onto her chest. She kept coughing and I could that see she was coughing up tiny clothes. The clothes belonged to a doll I once had and had long since lost. Mother had sewn the small skirts and dresses and jackets herself. She fashioned each tiny buttonhole. She hand-stitched skinny rickrack along the hems. She seeded fabric with tiny glass beads. As a child I was ashamed of the desperation sewn into these clothes. The clothes screamed Love me. And now she was coughing them up for me to see again, tiny and real. Tartan plaid skirt with pleats. Pale satin party dress. Bouclé jacket. Matching pencil skirt. Dark red beret. Pea coat. Evening gloves. Sequin-trim cocktail skirt. Embroidered linen tunic dress. Lilac cardigan. She coughed and coughed and the little wardrobe disgorged in a jumbled, spittle-flecked pile on her bony chest. Each time she opened her mouth was an exorcism. I tried to hand her the plastic vomit pan but she roughly pushed it away.