A Curious Position
Time is a hell of a thing to mourn, so I don't bother. It's not solid like a person; it never dies like a loved one leaving you with your dignity and a justified weeping finale. Instead, it keeps dying, every day, every time you open your eyes.
There's three more funerals you'll never find the time to attend.
You can sit at its bedside while it wastes away.
Wring your hands and click your tongue, but nothing will stop the procession; it marches along whether you sit on the grassy hill and sun yourself ignorant to its passing, or balance the coffin on a padded mourning suit shoulder; the sad, sweet serenade of fabric and wood in measured tone.
Most nights, I sleep on the couch. Why bother moving to the bed when the couch is more than adequate? Its big enough, my feet barely make it past the second cushion even with my legs stretched all the way out. One of the first quilts I ever made, a child's blanket with a patchwork kitten batting a real piece of yarn, hangs over the back during the day and is the perfect throw to cover my toes at night. Besides, if I mess up the bed it means I have to make it, and I hate making beds.
I still have that quilt, the one with the creepy kitten (never really thought about the Frankensteinesque effect of stitches across its face while I was making it) because I had no children to give it to. I got married at twenty-three but we wanted to make sure we had enough room, a real house and a backyard, before the children came. Back then the only method of birth control for a respectable married couple like us was the withdrawal method. A little risky, but somehow we beat the numbers game; not even a scare.
By the time I turned thirty I was an orphan. We had the house by then, one with a large, manicured lawn that sloped down to a shallow forest. On the afternoon of my mother's wake, I caught my husband and my sister making love up against a birch tree in that forest. I tiptoed back to the wake, hoping they didn't see me, forcing a confrontation, a slipped moment to become a permanent truth. I remember the square heels of my Sears-Roebuck pumps sinking into the Spring-softened lawn, leaving marks like a path of a pirate's map, leading to the giant X. I recall the way their sounds became the song of an injured bird. I remember telling myself “Grief does funny things to people.”
In an effort to heal my broken heart, my husband decided we could end our habitual precautions, that a baby was just the thing for his quiet, sullen, chain-smoking wife. But it was too late. Maybe out of self-preservation clicked on by the betrayal I couldn't allow to be real, I began the first stages of early-onset menopause. It turns out one of the symptoms was blindness where the increased frequency of my little sister's visits was concerned. There were a lot of birds nesting in the back woods in those days.
One night in mid-February, I awoke to a moan that echoed up the frost-covered lawn like a rolling marble, tapping against my bedroom window. I'm not sure what made that particular night different, but I threw off the covers and slid into my slippers.
The axe was where it always was, leaning up against the woodpile on the outer garage wall. It was heavier than I imagined it would be; heavy as intent could be, and instead of throwing it over my shoulder like a warrior, I dragged it behind me like a biddy with a grocery cart. It left a trail across the grass from the house to my husband. And my sister.
I paused for a moment when I found them, and the adrenaline flashed through my guts like lightening, then rumbled deeper into the muscle tissue like low-lying thunder.
She started screaming, pushing him out of her, holding her hands out in front of her face. I smelled the hot urine that leaked down her bare legs at the sight of her scorned sister in a long white nightgown, hefting an axe; it soaked the panties hooked on her left foot.
“Rose...” Donavon stumbled over each letter, trying to pull his tweed trousers up over his pale ass. “Rose, wait.”
He moved away from Lilly, the coward, and she fell to the ground, screams muffled by moss and snow.
Thats when I swung.
The blade was sharp and it bit through the yielding flesh, wedging itself deep in the denser core so that the metal squeaked as I wiggled it back out. The second swing was easier because by then I'd balanced my legs and positioned my torso just so. She must have stopped screaming at some point, but the absence didn't register; I was consumed by the task.
I didn't know why they always came to this tree, maybe it tilted at the perfect angle for their bodies, maybe they were sentimental, bu when it fell under my axe I had the odd sensation that it was over, that I had managed to end it once and for all. And I was right.
They scrambled up the slippery slope to the house while I finished chopping down their birch. Donavon took the lock-box with our savings and his old pistol from the closet and loaded it into the backseat of the Chevy, along with his good shoes, some winter coats and my sister. I heard they're together still in a retirement villa on the west coast, their doting children making regular visits to bring the rosy-cheeked grandchildren for well-mannered visits. Of course, at sixty-six, Lilly is the youngest there, a bit of a Bingo bombshell. Well, good for them, I suppose.
After Donavon left I took in a few boarders, mainly students from the university. I tried to limit the intake to females, but by the third year I took in a boy. He was a thin specimen, smelling of caramel and mothballs like an old woman. Maybe that’s why I took him in when he showed up on the doorstep clutching the ad for renters in one finely-boned hand, a duffel bag of pilly wool sweaters in the other.
“I know it says female boarders only, but its the only room in my price range and its close to the library. You won't even know I'm here.”
And for the first month he was in the back bedroom the only evidence of Brian Childs' existence was the loaf of cracked wheat bread on top of the fridge, a set of galoshes in the mud room and the grey cloud of chickadees on the front lawn each morning, fighting over the ring of crust thrown from his breakfast as he left for class. The smells in the house stayed the same, his own scent covered by bleach and Chantilly like a woollen sock. The dynamic didn't change either. Besides Childs, there were three women in the house: myself; Ming, an international student out of Taiwan studying pharmacology; and Diane, an obese nursing co-op placement. At first, we were ruffled and moved more cautiously about the common areas. After that first week, we settled back down over the nest, and by winter break we'd gelled as a 4 person unit. We weren't really friends or family; no one was a replacement for an absentee parent or a missed sibling, but it worked. We'd even started a household lending library in the front room. Our taste in literature was almost contrary with one another. Ming sprinkled my Reader's Digest hardcover collection with Russian names and Diane added two or three new paperback romances a week, while Brian contributed slim volumes of carefully curated poetry. I read each cover, every jacket summary and memorized each author. I'd take them down off the three shelves they occupied during the day when the rest of the house was in class or on shift. I was old then- thirty-five and practically a widow. And as an old woman I'd put aside desires and passion, and focused my efforts on the running of the household. As such, though I handled the books twice weekly and ran my fingers over the embossed letters of their spines often, I never once read them. It was too dangerous. Literature, after all, can be a crowbar for a closed heart.