Thursday
Mar052015

Hospice

By Gregory Howard


FC2
April 2015
978-1573660518


 

But there was also another girl and it was the girl who said it. She was tall and thin with wispy hair and large eyes. She liked green popsicles and let the juice drip on to her hand without cleaning them. They didn't know where she came from. One day she just appeared.

They were in the backyard. They weren't really playing, but they weren't separate either. She was digging up plants, pulling them right out of the ground, roots and all. She liked how at first it was hard and then suddenly it was easy. She liked the feeling of tearing free. Sometimes, she imagined she was the plant and it satisfied her. The brother didn't look at her when she did this. He was busy doing things brothers did.

The girl stood at the edge of the grass and watched them.

Are you new? the brother asked.

No, she said.

Do you want to play? the brother asked.

I don't know, she said.

The brother shrugged. The girl continued to stare. The dirt from the plant's roots fell lightly onto her arm. She carefully rubbed it into her skin.

Later she and the girl were friends. It happened like this: She was in her room, playing with her dolls. It wasn't going very well. There were too many of them and it was hard to tell what they wanted from her. She pushed them around desultorily. The girl was at the door. How long had she been there? She didn't cross the threshold. For a while all she did was stare. You're doing it wrong, the girl said finally. She didn't say anything. You need at least one more to play "End of the World," the girl said. This shocked her. She didn't think she was playing anything. She looked around. Here, the girl said and entered the room. She arranged the dolls on the bed and they sat on the floor. They stared at the dolls and the dolls stared at them. Now we're ready, the girl said. See?

 

The mother thought the girl was a school friend and they let her believe it. My goodness, the mother said, just look at you! She took an orange dishrag to the girl's face and wiped it brusquely. There, the mother said, satisfied.

When the girl stayed overnight, they would tell stories about melancholy ghosts and watch the brother in secret. This was not an easy thing to do. The brother was sullen and clandestine. Usually he hung out in the basement. In the basement it was cool and damp and there were stacks of old books and too many chairs and shelves with porcelain animals and clocks that did not work. She didn't like it. It smelled musty. It was under the ground. Who likes to be under the ground? Crawling things, that's who. But when the girl was there they went down anyway. They snuck down the staircase on their hands and knees, whispering admonitions to each other as they went. The girl always went first. They always peered around the corner to see.

One night, they saw him talking to himself. He stood in different places and said things in different voices. Sometimes he was agitated, sometimes he was calm. At one point it seemed like he was choking. He grabbed his own throat and his eyes got big and he sank to his knees. His eyes were closed. He slumped to the ground. He was going to be dead, she thought excitedly. Dead, dead, dead. But he didn't stay there at all. He got up and then did other things, spoke in other voices. She didn't really see him do these other things. She just stared at the spot where he had lain.

Does he always do that? the girl asked, after they had crawled back upstairs. They were in the kitchen, eating cereal out of big bowls.

What? she said.

Talk to himself like that.

I don't know.

Why not?

He does different things, she said.

Like what? the girl said.

I don't know, she said and put a spoon in her mouth. He's always doing something, she said after she swallowed.

The girl glared at her a little. Clearly she was unhappy with the answer. For a while they scraped their big bowls in silence.

He didn't used to, she said, quietly. I don't think he did. I can't remember. Maybe he did.

The girl looked at her thoughtfully. Do you feed them? she asked, finally.

She looked at the girl.

Your memories? the girl said. Do you feed them?

She wanted to say yes, but she didn't know what it would mean if she did.

Here, the girl said. She took her by the hand and they went into the mother's room. For a little while the girl looked in some of the porcelain dishes that waited on the mother's darkly burnished bureau. The dishes had tops that resembled the heads of different, delicate flowers. She opened them one by one. She reached into one and fished around. Its top was a swirling pink rose. Here, she said, pulling out a single needle and holding it between her fingers.

Give me your hand, the girl demanded.

She hesitated.

It's important, the girl said.

She gave the girl her hand. The girl held it gently, caressing it with her thumb and forefinger. See? she said. Then she quickly stabbed the pad of her index finger with the pin.

Ow, she cried out.

Shhh, the girl said and then squeezed the finger hard. Shhh. A small dollop of blood emerged from the pinprick. A red pearl.

You have to feed them, the girl said. If you want them to come. You have to feed them.

 

After that, she and the girl always played the game they called feeding. They did this under an overgrown lilac bush near an alley in the backyard. They crawled underneath it one at a time. They crawled on their bellies. The small branches scratched at their backs as they went.

Inside the bush everything was different. It was quiet and close. They sat across from each other, Indian style. She held out her hand in front of her and the girl grabbed it. Her arm was straight. Her palm faced up. Is there anyone here who wants to have memories? the girl would intone. I'm the one who wants them, she would say. Then the girl would stab her finger with the needle and squeeze. It was deeper than the first time in the kitchen. The blood fell in slow drops onto the dirt. As it fell she would say things out loud. Once, when I was little, I almost died, she said. My brother and I were on a mountain and I wasn't looking and almost walked off the mountain. But my brother saved me. He pulled me back at the last minute. The girl didn't ask any questions; she just listened. The stories came out. The blood mixed with the dirt. Her finger ached. The girl stared straight ahead.

Afterwards they would write down the stories in a little notebook. It was the same one where she wrote things about the brother. Sometimes it was hard to tell what was true and what was memories. Inside the lilac bush there was a holy silence. Outside she carried the needle in a pocket of her dress. Don't look, she'd always say to the girl when it was time to pull the needle out.

 

Meanwhile, in the living room, the brother sat with impunity in an antique chair. The mother knelt beside him and rested her head upon his lap. Her eyes closed.

The room was dark in the way it was always dark—shadowy, cavernous, unpronounced. Inside, objects were waiting. When she was little, she would stand at the threshold of the room and peer into it. Her brother told her that inside the room was a witch and if you stopped long enough in the center of the room the witch would appear and spirit you away to her nest underneath a lake to feed your fingers, one by one, to her hatchlings. But she could only take you if you believed that she was real.

In a gesture both gentle and aggressive he brushed the mother's hair, stopping intermittently to pull long gray strands out of the brush and carefully place them in his pocket.

 

But it was the girl who said it. And once she said it there was no taking it back.

They were in her room. They were there because it was raining. Every once in a while they would look out the window and see the honeysuckle bush, drenched and shapeless. They were playing with the dolls but really they weren't. Mostly they were sitting on the floor amidst the scattered cloth bodies wishing they were somewhere else. They hadn't been playing for a while, when the girl said it. They had been just sitting there waiting for something to happen. Then suddenly the girl said: There are ways of finding out.

She was supposed to place a piece of hot metal against the brother's skin. This was her job. If he was not her brother, then the metal would do nothing at all. It would be like maybe she was just touching him with metal that wasn't hot or maybe her hand. If he was not her brother then the not-brother would continue to sleep the whole time. It was important to do it while he was sleeping. It was necessary. Sleep was a trap. This is what the girl said. She had read all about it.

They went down the basement to look for something to use. The brother wasn't there, which seemed wrong. There was nowhere else for him to go. But if that was true and there really was nowhere else for him to go then where did he go? Outside it was still raining. Upstairs on the TV a monster movie played for no one, just the couch and the table and the dusty chairs. The basement was dark and quiet. Upstairs a beautiful woman who had been driven to kill was confronting the diabolic scientist who made her that way.

Where do you think he is? she asked.

Shh, the girl said.

The father kept his tools in a small room off of the main basement. The room seemed colder. It was definitely darker. It was lit by one light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The girls knelt in front of some boxes and rummaged around. They unpacked the boxes. The boxes were damp and unorganized. They had to pull tools out carefully, one by one. Does it have to be all metal? she whispered to the girl. The girl considered this. I think it only has to be mostly metal, she said. Eventually they settled on a screwdriver. It had a red handle and a rusty tip. Later, in her room, the girl held it against her own heart. See, the girl said.

She was ready to do it right away. But that was not how it worked. First she had to pass some tests. This was what the girl said. She had to prove that she was worthy. Plus the tests might somehow bring her brother back. Her real brother. Maybe just by enduring them something somewhere would be unlocked.

The first test was about trust. What would happen was this: the girl would do something bad. She wasn't going to say what it was, she was just going to do it. Then, when the parents found out, she would have to take the blame for whatever the girl did.

This test didn't seem like a test at all. She liked to confess. Once in school the teacher found a piece of paper with answers to an exam written all over it and asked the class to say who had done it. She stood in front of them and looked stern. For a while no one said anything. It seemed like forever. But then a little boy stood up to say that it was him, and after he did the teacher praised him. She praised him for being honest.

She looked at the boy with envy. She too wanted to confess to something. She wanted to confess and be congratulated. But there was nothing in the world she had to confess.

Now, she thought, she could confess.

So for one week she began to take the blame for everything. Any time the mother was mad about something she confessed. It wasn't easy. Sometimes she had to make up elaborate stories to connect herself to what had gone wrong. Once she and the mother came home to find the back door wide open, the kitchen chairs overturned, the trash can knocked over, and pots and pans scattered all over the floor. On the counter the blender was whirring on high. What in the hell is this! the mother exclaimed. I did it, she said. You did it, the mother said. Yes, she said, solemnly. And I'm very sorry. Would you like to explain to me how it is that you did this, the mother said. Seeing as you were with me for the past two hours. She thought for a moment. She tried to look penitent. I was keeping an animal, she said, finally. An animal, the mother said. A raccoon, she said. It was a baby, she clarified. And I was keeping her in a box in my closet and feeding it crackers. It must have escaped. The mother looked at her and sighed. Go to your room, she said.

That week she confessed to a stolen hat, a flat tire in the driveway, the neighbor's broken window, and leaving the milk out four times. Each time she hoped to be rewarded. But the mother was not the teacher. At each confession her mother got more and more upset. I don't know what you think you're doing, the mother said sternly to her one night before bed. But I can tell you with certainty that will have a lasting effect.

After a week had ended, the girls met in the lilac bush. They sat across from each other and held hands.

Which time was you? she asked the girl.

The girl's face was placid.

I never did anything, the girl said.

 

The second test was supposed to be a test of bravery. The girls decided she should spend the night in the woods nearby. The woods were tangled and dense. And sometimes filled with strange sounds. Rustling and buzzing and the shriek of night birds. A couple of times she had seen an older girl lead an older boy into the woods by the hand. The boy looked around like he was worried about everything. The girl, however, looked straight ahead.

It was supposed to be a test of bravery but it became something else.

All the doors in the house were locked at night, so she would have to sneak out. The best way to sneak was through the brother's room. There was a window next to the garage and from the garage she could hang down and just reach her feet to the chain-link fence below. That night, when it was time to go, she pretended to sleep. She was good at pretending. Sometimes she would lie on the couch in the living room and wait for someone to enter so she could pretend. She liked hearing them above and beyond her, completely separate from her, separate only because of her own closed eyes and her willpower. She liked knowing without being known. But it wasn't at all like being dead.

At bedtime, the mother came in to check on her. She sat next to her and absently stroked her hair. It was a rough, clawing gesture and the mother breathed loudly as she did it.

After the mother had left, she snuck out of the room. Sneaking was walking slowly and deliberately because otherwise the wood floor made creaking sounds. It was hard to determine when it would make the sounds. Sometimes even though you were sneaking the floor still made the sounds. Sometimes, she thought, it knew certain things.

At the end of the hall, the brother's door was left ajar. This was how he slept ever since he had returned. Before he had slept with it wide open. Now it couldn't be all the way open or all the way shut. She crept in on all fours. The brother was asleep in his bed. He lay inelegantly under heavy covers. In the room, it was dark. The moon wasn't up yet or there was no moon. She crept across the floor. The brother moaned a little in his sleep. He was probably sweating. She crawled to the window and opened the screen. Outside, the trees rustled. There was an electric chirring sound from some invisible insect. She turned around to look at the brother. He was sitting up in bed. He was sitting straight up and his eyes were open.

Shhh, she said to him.

He didn't say anything.

Shhh, she said again.

His eyes were wide open but they were not looking.

She got up and walked over to the bed and when she got there, he relaxed a little. He lay back down, but didn't close his eyes.

She got in bed next to him. She ran her hands through his tangled, greasy hair.

Shhh, she said one more time. We are sleeping, she whispered to him.

She put her arm and round him pressed herself close to his body. She could feel through his pajamas that he was cold. She could feel his breath slow down and lengthen. We are sleeping, she repeated. She said it with her eyes closed.

 

The next day the girl asked about the woods. They were sitting in the lilac bush and the girl was staring at her intently.

It was fine, she said.

Fine? the girl said.

Yeah, she said.

It was hard to see the girl. The sun was shining brightly behind her, coming through the thin bramble in blinding darts.

Fine, the girl said. She dug at the dirt in front of her with a stick.

When she had finally got to the lilac bush, the girl was already there. But she hadn't wanted to play feeding and she hadn't wanted to hold hands. She only wanted to know about the woods. It looked like she had been waiting for a while.

The girl dug at the ground for a little while longer, tracing obscure patterns into the dirt.

Like was it scary? she asked suddenly. Did the wind howl? Were there night sounds? Sounds of creatures snuffling? Because I think there are supposed to be creatures.

Yeah, she said. It was totally like that.

There were creatures? the girl said.

Totally, she said.

The girl smiled. She could tell that the girl was smiling. Even through the sunlight she could tell. It made her nervous.

 

The next time she went again to the brother's room, it was in the daytime. The late afternoon. But still, the room was dark. The mother had pulled all the shades. Someone had. She assumed it was the mother. Who else could it be? The door to the room was half open and on the bed inside the brother lay curled into some shape. It was hard to tell if it was really him. His body was covered in blankets. But still she could make out his head, his tangle of hair.

She wasn't supposed to go to the brother's room. Now this was true. She knew she wasn't supposed to because the girl wouldn't really look at her and wouldn't come to the lilac bush, not ever, but spent her time at the kitchen table instead where she drew headless animals and talked to the mother about the color of the sky. But also there were always men in the room.

At first she didn't understand these men. One had a beard and the other didn't. They both wore sweaters and rumpled slacks. She watched them through the half-open door: there, in the brother's room, they walked around a lot and looked at things. Things in this case meant the window and the bookcase and the space under the bed. When they talked to the brother, they used words like figurine and water and head. When they sat next to him on the bed, they held his hands.

 

She went to the room, crawling. She was an animal in the midst of some development—sniffing the air, wary. She was a night animal and she was hungry.

In the room it was only the brother. But it was dark and there were places for others to hide. At any moment the men could appear. The men in sweaters and rumpled slacks. They would appear and capture her and take her. They would take her and perform upon her rituals and tests. The rituals would be violent and possibly deadly. From them they would know the things they needed to know.

She crawled warily, creeping closer to the bed and closer, and as she crept, he disappeared from view. She got to the bed and crawled up on it. The brother's back was to her. He was lumpy, misshapen. She sat there and stared at him. Then she panted. He shifted a little but did not turn over. She panted again and nudged his head with her head. She could hear him breathing. She nudged his head again and then licked his ear. It was warm and tasted like salt.

He turned over to look at her. His eyes were filmy and distant. He smiled a little.

It's me, she said.

It's you, he said.

You don't recognize me because I'm an animal, she said.

An animal? he said.

But it's still me, she qualified.

What kind of animal? he said.

She thought for moment.

It's like a cross between a bear and an antelope, she said. It doesn't really have a name.

That's good, he said, smiling weakly at her. All the best things don't.

I'm wild, she said. But you can tame me. You can tame me by petting. What I need is to be petted.

His arms were still underneath the blankets, which were pulled up around his neck. To her he seemed restrained there, his body immobilized by the covers, weighing him down and leaving only his head free, but barely, part of some obscure punishment to redress terrible wrongs. She moved closer to him and pawed at the blanket.

Don't, he said.

She kept at her pawing.

Stop it, he said again. But his voice was not very insistent.

She stopped for a moment.

Why not? she said. This is what animals do.

I'm resting, he said. His voice sounded weird. It was soft and hoarse and a bit garbled, like something hard but also slimy was lodged in his throat.

I'm supposed to rest.

She looked at him. He was pale, anxious.

I'll help, she said. I can help.

She pulled the covers back and got in next to him. Underneath the covers it was warm and a little damp. She lay on her back next to him, almost touching but not touching. His body was rigid. His breathing was shallow and quick.

For a while they stayed like that. But he was uncomfortable—he shifted and turned—and it made her uncomfortable.

You can't do it like that, she said, finally. You have to go limp. Otherwise it won't work. You have to close your eyes and go limp. Remember?

Here, she said.

She pulled her knees up to her chest and pulled off her baggy yellow shorts and then her underpants. She kicked them down to the bottom of the bed. Then she took off her white tank-top and threw it over the side. The bed was a raft adrift on the sea. Everything divested and thrown overboard was an offering to the tenebrous ocean and its voracious gods.

What are you doing? he said.

I'm helping, she said. See.

She unbuttoned the red flannel pajama top he was wearing.

Take it off, she said. The bottoms too.

He acted like he didn't want to. But he did it anyway.

His body was pale and skinny. Did it look like his body? She could see the outline of his ribcage pressed against his skin, like the skin had been too tightly stretched over his fragile bones. Here and there, on his arms, his chest, there were scratches and cuts.

Throw them overboard, she said.

He obeyed.

We're on a boat, she said. But it isn't just any boat. This boat is going to take you to the place you need to be. The boat is filled with flowers and stuffed animals and pictures.

Stuffed animals? he said, sitting up to look at her.

She sighed.

Because you're dead, she said. Duh. So close your eyes.

She pushed him back down into his death position.

You're dead, she said. But you're still on a journey. In books animals arrive and give you gifts. They give you gifts to help you on your way.

Gifts? he said. What gifts.

A key, a mirror, and . . . a cookie.

That's a gift?

It's a magical cookie, she said, matter-of-factly. Close your eyes. Be dead, she said. Now you are going to the place where the dead go. To the land beyond. It won't be easy. Once you get there, there will be tests. The important thing is to remember at all times that you are dead. They'll try to trick you into thinking you're not.

His eyes were closed and his body was relaxed. She lay back down next to him and closed her eyes too. The pyre rocked gently in the ocean. The sky was gray and the waves were gray but the horizon was a thin line of tan light. Beyond it was a king who had a deer's head for a head. He smiled and waited. He rubbed his hands.

I know you're really not my brother, she whispered to him, her eyes still shut tight. I know all about you but I won't tell.

She felt his hand touch her hand.

I won't tell, she whispered. Not for anything. And if you want to be my brother, even though I know you're not, you can.

The sky was gray and the waves were gray, but soon it would be light.

He clasped her hand in his and they lay next to each other—floating, drifting.

Across the horizon the deer-headed king smiled a cold and hungry smile.

The sky was gray, the waves were gray.

They lay there next to each other, splayed and naked.

They were just like that when they were found.