Tuesday
Jul282015

I Cried So Much that Night, as I Sometimes Did

Corwin Ericson


 

The fence described our lives; we were the family inside that fence, inside that house. Only Pa was tall enough to see over it. He'd tell us sometimes about what was out there: The rest of some trees Sis and I could only see the tops of, where he figured some animals might live, "amongst the forest litter," as he would say. A portion of the road, "whither it goes," as he said, at times. As he described what lay yonder, he held his hand over his eyes, to sharpen his mental focus.

Sis told me she could see these things and more from the roof, but I'd never been up there.

Pa was odd about the roof. Sis knew better than to brag about being up there, but sometimes she couldn't help but speak knowingly about it. Sis also had to be careful about speaking about what she could see from the roof. Not only was the subject of the roof forbidden, but Sis's very vision was a touchy topic at home. I sometimes forgot that Pa was trying to believe that Sis was going blind. Usually this didn't bother Sis, but his method of compensation for her supposed sightlessness sometimes got her goat. Pa felt that his own senses and fatherly powers would flourish if her ability to see diminished. Particularly his power of description. "This," as he would for instance and all too often say to my sister, "is water. Come feel it with me!" My sister would stomp away, and my father's lip would tremble with a sadness that made me teary too. Water, he felt, was as hard to describe as it was to hold in his hand. If Sis wouldn't let him practice describing it to her, she would never understand how things got wet. Which she would need to know, blind or not.

As he sometimes did, Pa hinted he'd had a knowingness about the roof from before our time. He once said that before we'd adopted Kitty, he'd had to beat the rats out of the roof (though Pa didn't say "roof"; he just pointed up) thatch himself and that it was full of vermin and riddled with holes. When he told us this, Sis yelled, "It's shingles!" and Ma shushed her. Later Sis told me thatch was like dead grass. Kitty did sit on the roof a lot. Wishing for grass, maybe.

Ma called the roof the "anti-ceiling." She was better at being nice to Pa than me or Sis. Though we tried sometimes. Usually, it was easy enough not to mention the roof, but we could tell Pa could barely suffer its presence. We'd learned to avoid phrases like "high hopes" and "things are looking up." The poem he read to us on Christmas Eve was a severe revision of a better-known work. In Pa's version, Santa Claus sends a family a carte de visite so that he will be recognized when he arrives. He leaves his gifts in the foundling box on the doorstep, and if the presents are still there in the morning, the family gets to keep them. There are no roofs, no tiny hooves in the poem. Just a well-announced arrival, polite knocking, and then the goods in the box.

One day just before supper in early November, there were three knocks at the door. This was the postman's signal. Pa peered out the window, and after the postman had left and closed the gate, Pa opened our door and took the envelope from the foundling box on the doorstep. He called to Ma for the letter opener, and we all gathered around him. "Well, what do we have here?" he said with plummy ceremony. We all knew; it was the card from Santa announcing his arrival. I was so relieved. He'd always come, but this year his announcement had come late. "You never know," as father was wont to say, "if you're being naughty or nice. That's why it's so good to have Santa who can tell you each year." I usually got a cornhusk doll, though sometimes it was a corncob pipe. I always had been nice. I barely ever worried whether I was naughty back then. I hoped it would be a girl doll. The boy dolls had all been killed in wars and buried out back, near the fence. Sometimes they came back from battle hideously disfigured, and I had to euthanize them before I buried them.

That Christmas, Pa got his visor, the best present he ever got. A visor is like having a duck bill on your forehead. It's not really like a hat at all. I could see all of Pa's hair when he wore the visor. It makes looking up impossible, but it's supposed to be for playing cards and other sports, so that the sun keeps out of your eyes.

I remember that Christmas well. "You know my greatest hope is to open the foundling box one day and discover an orphan," said Pa, just as he often said. "But this visor . . . its home is now upon my brow!" Pa wore it all the time, except when he was asleep, since he had eyelids. He never had to look at the ceiling again.

 

It was my sister who first told me about the roof. I was little then. At first I didn't understand her. "My dear little sister," she said in her teacherly voice, as she sometimes did, "there is a whole other side of the ceiling."

"Is it above us, too?"

"It is; it's above the ceiling. The roof is the other side of the ceiling."

I was a little scandalized by how she was saying "roof" and "ceiling." They weren't words we were supposed to say. "Are there people under it, like us? Are they upside down? Is it on top of them? Do they stand on it? Are there people on their heads right on top of us? Why can't we see them?"

Sis petted me, as she sometimes did, though less and less as we grew older. "No, you're thinking of China, which is far, far below the cellar. That's where the people are upside down. The other side of the ceiling is the roof. It's the top of the house. It keeps the sky out of the house. You can see it from outside."

What Sis told me, it only made a certain amount of sense. There were people below us like us, whose feet walked the same ground ours did, only they were upside down. That was reasonable. If myself and my anti-self both stomped our boots at the same time, our soles would each feel the thud. I did this often in the cellar, on the dirt floor. Sis had shown me how. Myself and my anti-self both stomping so hard our teeth clacked. I enjoyed this. Maybe myself and my anti-self would never meet, but I just knew she felt the same consoling amity that I did. There were many afternoons I spent after bad days at school, stomping in the cellar.

What made less sense is that there weren't anti-selves on top of us as well; our heads should have nearly met through the ceiling, and though I did not want to bonk heads with her, I felt deprived there was not a girl with whom I could nearly share thoughts afloat above me.

My sister tried to explain. "You see the sky all the time," she said, telling me something I already knew, as was her habit. "There is no one there."

"We can't know that when we are inside," I said. And I want to be clear: I was not an idiot child. I always knew there was a roof; it's just that we made so much effort not to mention it. Sometimes I just forgot it, this thing that kept us so safe from the sky.

"There's something else you don't understand," she said. "You can only have one anti-self."            

It made me sad that there was no one above me. And that there could only be one anti-self. And because I was so sad, I did not believe her. I did not like to think about the roof much, in case thinking about it might make me talk about it. But since I was thinking about it more, I began to cry a little.

"We should go outside; you'll see—you'll feel better," said Sis.

We went out, and Sis pointed to the roof. "See, nobody."

I was about to feel even worse, when I saw Kitty on the roof. "You're wrong! There's Kitty!" Kitty looked at us. I waved. Kitty didn't. Kitty never did. "How does Kitty get up there?"

My sister said she did not know. "But we can go up there; I know how."

She'd said this before, but I hadn't thought it through. As we stood there, looking at the roof, I began to see it differently. It wasn't just the other side of the ceiling; it was a place all unto itself. There was no upside-down house atop ours, which was as it seemed sometimes from inside. The roof was a place a girl could go. It was almost too much to think at once. I felt a new sort of thrill.

"You are dumbfounded," she said, "as you sometimes are."

"How?" was all I could say.

"With that," she said, pointing to the thing by the side of the house.

I'd seen that thing before, in fact, it had probably always been there. "What is it?"

"A ladder."

"How does it work?"

"You climb it."

That seemed unlikely. It was long but only about as high as my hips. I told my sister so. She described to me the process of picking up the ladder and leaning it against the house. It sounded absurd. We tried it. I fell off. She told me about rungs and standing on them and holding onto them. They were far apart. I got about halfway between the ground and the roof and felt I could go no farther, and then found I could not climb down. I was frozen and scared and cried again. Kitty looked down at me. He was just out of reach. My sister told me to wait there, as she often did. I did. She went inside.

I thought she was going to come back with help. Instead she said, "I told Ma and Pa we were going beyond the fence to collect locusts and look for suspicious immigrants." That was something we sometimes did then.

"I want to come down!"

"No!" said Sis. "They'll think we're gone. We can go up, and we won't get in trouble."

"They'll hear us," I said.

"They'll think we're vultures," she said. That's what Pa would say when I asked him what the noises were on the roof: vultures. Only, I wouldn't say "roof." It wouldn't be until years later that I would realize that the vultures I heard were probably my sister in her boots on the roof. "I'll help you," she said.

I looked up and saw Kitty's tail. It made me feel braver. "OK," I said, "but I'm going to be a cat, like Kitty—not a vulture."

My sister climbed up a couple rungs and hugged me to the ladder. She put her hands on mine, pried them off the upper rung, and pulled my hand up to the next one as if I were a puppet. "Now, step up," she said. Getting onto the roof from the ladder was hard, and I booted my sister in the face by accident.

As she often did, Sis promised to kick me back later. "But now," she said, "just behold."

I saw Kitty; I saw the shingles. The brick chimney. I saw pebbles and some lichen. I looked for longer and saw some ants. "I can see ants!"

"They look much bigger from here," said Sis.

I was astonished—now that we were standing upon the roof, it became apparent it was just another sort of thing that could be stood upon. As my sister often did, she told me to be careful and took my hand. We crawled like a six-limbed beast to the peak. It was there I finally understood my father's frustration with description. I wanted, suddenly, to tell my sister all about what I could see, every inch of it so new to me, yet so old to her. Kitty came to sit with us. He climbed over my sister's lap to sit on mine. I held my hand over his eyes and told him what I beheld, sitting upon the peak. "The shingles lap over each other like this," I said, putting one hand over the edge of the other hand I was holding over his eyes. Kitty struggled out of my lap, as he often did, and walked to the chimney, which he rubbed against. "That's a chimney. It goes down inside the house. It's how the smoke gets out. You can't go in it."

"Look!" I shouted, pointing to something caught on a shingle.

Kitty looked at my finger.

"No, look!" I'd found one of my cornhusk dolls. I'd given her a sky burial, but forgotten.

I pointed out the rest of the features I could discern, the edges of the roof where we would have had gutters if we had had gutters, the dried leaves and twigs from a nearby tree. An ant walked near Kitty and he stepped on it. I tried describing the ant to the cat, but the ant was too small to describe.

Sitting on the peak hurt. We scootched down so we could lie with our knees bent and our butts against the heels of our boots. Sis still held my hand. She said if you stare up too long you'll feel like you're falling up into the sky. That's what she looked like she was trying to do. All over, the sky was the same as itself. I'd never thought about how immensely boring it was before. My sister had brought her pipe and matches. We shared it, though I preferred cigarillos.

I rolled over and put my nose an ant's height away from a shingle. "This is the last thing I'd see if I fell to my death, onto the roof," I told Sis. "Do people fall onto roofs? Probably just off them. There's more here than I thought. Cracks in the shingle and maybe dust or something. Put your hand over your eyes and I'll describe it to you."

My sister said we were getting down.

 

That night was bath night. Father wasn't allowed in the room with us when we bathed, since Sis was afraid he'd describe the water. Afterward, when I was in my nightgown, I sat on Pa's lap and felt his beard. Nobody knew what had happened to his mustache. Pa had never spoken about it, and did not that night, either.

As I did, sometimes, I told him about a picture I was thinking about drawing. I'd found that I could describe my drawings much better than I could draw them. This one was going to be simple and clear. "There's a big square, Pa, with another smaller square in it. And that small square has a cross in it. And there's a rectangle in the big square, too. With a little circle in it, to the side, halfway up."

Pa smiled. He pushed his visor up a bit on his brow. His hair looked funny. He put his hand over his eyes and said, "I'm imagining it. Are there flowers in front of the square and a tree beside it?"

"Nope," I said, "there's a thing like H's on top of each other. It's called a ladder."

Pa peered at me from between his fingers.

"And on top of the square is a triangle!"

Pa moved his hand down to cover his mouth.

"And . . . on that triangle is standing a cat . . . and two girls!"

Pa stood up, and I fell off his lap and my head hit the table. Instead of apologizing, he pointed at me and said, "Vulture!"

 I was terrified.

Pa ran down into the cellar, slamming the door behind him. I sobbed. I hadn't even described the rectangle made of smaller rectangles on top of the triangle. Curlicues spiraled from it. Above it was nothing. I was going to say I would use all the rest of the blank pieces of paper in the world to show all of the nothingness.

I cried so much that night that Sis went and slept with Ma. Pa was nowhere, as he sometimes was.