Of All Them Birds, Their Heads
-of all the silences, the one in my head-
Yes, she’s asleep, I hear her say. The room’s door left ajar; a tenuous crimson stitching its margins. It emanates from the lamps she uses to reveal the photos. The rest of the house remains sunk in darkness. I’m suspended in it, rather than contained. The reminiscences of my expedition to the hospital begin to rise in the pill-induced fog.
I can’t watch her all the time…
I slide out of bed. The quilts withdraw between my legs like sea foam.
Since she came back from that trip…
I slouch toward the TV embedded atop the fireplace. The video camera (one of those modern surveillance artifacts capable of capturing movement in the absolute penumbra) is still on. Evelyn installed it shortly after my first sleepwalking episode. I tap on the screen and make sure to lower the volume.
…go see a specialist…not ruling anything out…
How long has it been since I last visited her at the hospice? Too long, probably. It’s not fair that I’ve deserted her, however the notion of facing…adapting to what the illness has made of her, it decimates me. I refuse to allow those visions of ruin usurp my memories.
She’s barely going out. Her editor threatened to fire her if she…
Examining myself on tape feels unreal. This copy of me (all blues and pinks and reds) wavers; it splits apart and becomes whole again once the whirlpools of white noise settle. Press rewind. I doubt those images will alleviate me.
Maybe the safest thing to do is…
Those steamed up yellow numbers at the bottom of the screen claim it was eleven. She (me, us) stands up and drags her feet to the boudoir …
…if I hadn’t walked in…
…then she grabs the scissors sitting amidst our sock collection, lifts up her shirt…
….I pause the recording, then stop it altogether.
I study the sutures before the bathroom mirror. The wound looks superficial: a procession of minuscule asterisks below my navel. Its edges (where the skin has started growing a washed-yellow) pulses to the touch. I get nervous upon thinking what could have happened if…
Silence those ideas. I’m safe. Now. That’s what matters.
Evelyn has always resented me for that tendency to simplify. Mania is the term she brandishes.
I wish I could admit something in me has gone stray and in its absence, nothing comforts me or hurts me enough. Admit it’s not her fault. Still I insist in destroying myself; in forcing her to witness my every death and promise, please promise you’ll rescue me.
I hunch over the sink to drink some water and as I straighten back up the muscles in my abdomen emit a rigid protest.
I make an effort not to rush my movements; avoid the stitches from coming undone.
As I inspect myself I find out it’s too late for caution.
I grab a paper towel from the mountainous loot of boxes and brush the cut clean. The knots seem intact though lit with blood. The pain subsides to a flickering stupor. Its echoes saunter to vertigo.
Something climbs up the walls of my throat. I’m incapable of keeping at bay. I sense its weight on my tongue; its shape in the cavern of my mouth; the hissing as it contorts against my teeth.
I can’t even decipher what it is, at first. I cradle it between my fingers. Light adheres to it. To the feathers. A sparrow’s head. The splinters of its beak stained with spit. Its eyes suspended like shards of tar within the sockets. Dry.
Evelyn knocks on the door. She doesn’t peek inside.
Paula? Is everything okay?
Yes, I answer and rush to make a fist. I’m just a bit woozy.
It must be the anesthesia wearing off. Need help?
No. I’ll be right out.
I listen to her marching back into the bedroom.
I wrap the sparrow’s head in a napkin and hide it in my “toilet kit of wellbeing”, where the bottles of lithium, migraine medication and roots of valerian and ginseng (one of our holistic friends suggested these would aid sooth my anxieties) sprawl in a muddle.
You can’t keep it, said the woman with the rubber gloves.
Yet it feels like I did.
-time is an indoctrinated organ-
Gregor and Letitia have invited us to a party at their penthouse, Evelyn informs me. They promised it won’t be crowded, she points out after noticing my reluctance.
I’m scattered in the bathtub. The vanilla salt beads sizzle open once they’ve met the scalding waters. Bubbles settle around my thighs, my buttocks and the bruised patches on my belly. It feels like I’m about to peel off and be born anew; my torments restored and glamorized.
I’m not in the mood, I confess.
You can’t be on your own now, Evelyn asseverates while jumping out of her overalls and sports’ bra. Fresh air and human interaction won’t harm you.
Don’t treat me like I’m crippled, I murmur in my defense.
Then don’t act like it. A line of severity frames her lips. Please, Paula…we’re not going to turn this into a battle of wills, are we?
We listen to the radio during our brief journey past the rundown houses in our neighborhood and into the gated communities. The voices and stations change; the headlines don’t: the virus. Clinical trials for the vaccine. Chart readings. Now, a jingle. I loathe those. Specially this one. Something about setting off to a planet made of ice cream and cake. There’s a princess with peach cobbler skin who gets eaten by the villagers and resuscitated as some other kind of dessert. Everyday. A new (the same) victim.
Evelyn drives around toward the back of the building and parks in the basement. You look beautiful, she whispers waltzing into the lift.
Gregor is holding the main door swept for us. We stumble into a hug and he offers me a sip of his mojitooooo, then guides us to the “Moldovan chamber” where Letitia entertains her guests with stories revolving the price of a piano she has now repurposed into a cup holder. After her eyes catch a glimpse of us she raises from her niche and proclaims her favorite duo has arrived.
Evelyn shakes some hands and provides a tentative grazing of the shoulder to a woman in red. I immediately know it’s her she was on the phone with last night.
I wait, motionless, hoping jealousy will strike me the way it did when we got down to The Blue Lotus after a bad day at school and some girl dared to even praise Evelyn’s skills with the darts. Yet nothing happens. All I do is smile and wonder how long it will take before she wakes up from this lethargy; before she emerges with the conviction that it could never be enough…
So “Paulette”, Letitia stares at me over the edge of her glass. Evelyn tells us you are working on a new article.
Upon realizing I won’t be too diligent regarding clarifications, she readies for a deeper swim.
How’s that going?
I’m not allowed to talk about it. I watch Evelyn circle the woman in red; the pleats in her blouse shiver absently when curled at her neck.
I want to go home.
Oh come on. Don’t be a wet blanket. We will be discreet. She gulps down a considerable amount of her drink. She went there to expose one of those “virus negationists”, she lectures the crowd. A political issue, for sure. I heard one of the men…
I need to use the restroom, I interrupt her without caring for my tone.
Yes, of course, her eyes flame. The unusual burden of ridicule punctuated by the smoke of her mascara.
No one is really paying attention at this point. People have commenced busying themselves with snacks to absorb the long-gobbled booze so they can carry on imbibing.
It’s that way, Letitia rolls her eyes and signals the far end of the hallway.
I get on my feet and dart away from the compact mass of sleepy features gawking at me.
I’m considering calling a cab at the expense of having Evelyn argue I’m being my nonstop quorum-seeker.
The bathroom stinks of potpourri. Vases and candles everywhere and just when I thought it couldn’t get any more pretentious I spot a large bronze statue of Icarus that is also a fountain surrounded by an assortment of wax trees and woodland creatures.
I splash some warm water on my forehead and pull my hair back from the temples. Timid drops rove down my earlobes and hang there like exotic pendants. I unlatch the cabinet above me and stretch up for a towel. I lose hold and cause all the neatly folded cloths to crumble onto a pile on the floor. Shit, shit, shit. Get on my knees and consecrate to separating them by size and pattern, assuming that was the correct hierarchy.
I’m finishing the stack when something plops out of it and rolls beneath the tub. I get down on all fours and grope my way along the cold tiles. It amuses me to envision my arm as a crane and my fingers the mechanical claw swerving ominously over the teddy bear pit. I grab it and pluck it out of the shadows, then hold it in my palm, albeit for a second before throwing it away with a screech.
The sparrow’s head rests against the marble pillar of the fountain.
What are you doing?
I turn around to discover Letitia silhouetted inches by the threshold.
I’m sorry…I…dropped your towels.
Don’t worry about it. Her gaze shifts as she makes out the bird’s severed head. Where did you get that? The opal tide of her mouth buoying.
It was an accident…
You shouldn’t be sniffing around my stuff.
Her stuff? Hers?
I kneel and she shortens the distance, picks up that impossible relic and holds it to her chest.
I’d forgotten, see? She looks defeated, aching. He’s a good man, I swear. We are all good and we are all forgetting. It’s not sad. One day it won’t matter anymore. Not this, of course. This is mine. It’s so awful, but it is mine. A crack on her lower lip becomes visible when she murmurs this. A fresh bruise. How did I overlook that? Evelyn told me you don’t like fucking anymore. There’s no hint of malice in the revealing. She exposes it in a nonchalant, lucid manner. I know I couldn’t do it, after. What’s your story?
I should go…
Where? She crawls back into her bones. This is your party. A party for you. Getting you out of the apartment and all that. She’s been wanting out of this, too. For over a year now. Before you came back all weird and shaken, even. But there’s never a right time, is there? Not for us. This is what we do to people. Her chin rests on the sparrow’s crown. You stayed in the valley for a long time. She didn’t think you’d come back. You never called. You can’t blame her, can you?
No, I can’t.
She knows you know, by the way. It’s useless. I told her to come live with me for a while. No point in dragging it out. She remains mute, then tilts her head right. You suck at parties, Paulette.
-a heart exterior-
Midday. Waiting at the hospice’s lobby. It’s “arts and crafts” for another twenty eight minutes, the nurse explained to me. I’d let you in, but it’s important they work without disruption. I nod in compliance. She’s new. I’m new.
We lost touch, mom and I. Ahead of dementia, too.
It happened gradually, with little exertion. The receding. The growing apart.
I was always remote to her and she was, in return, vacant. My second therapist (first girlfriend) dictated we were hauntings to one another. She hypothesized my mother unconsciously envied the younger, gutsier version of her that I personified. She might have even battled those contradictions, yet the more she attempted to make sense out of them, the more confused she got because she wasn’t supposed to feel that way.
Aren’t we all, all the time, under all circumstances, feeling things we’re not supposed to feel? Enjoying the sacrificial slaughter of what’s of benefit to us so we can dissolve in whatever can end us fastest?
My mother doesn’t envy me. She’s lived a life of deprivation. Men breezing through her bed, leaving behind stains and sterile dreams. I don’t hate her. I don’t seek excuse in her rejection so I can avoid tackling myself. I love her and I’m sad for her: I’m sad because I’d rather rot in the solitude of my place than to keep her with me.
The nurse tiptoes back to my bench. Hey, do you smoke? Her smile. Dense. I’m taking a break and I figured, well…
Sorry, I don’t smoke. I did. Quit three years ago. But what the hell! Life’s short, right?
She makes no sound while I finger her. No biting-of-the-lip, no moaning-under-her-breath. She’s just there; eyes reaching out for something in this vast collapsing of mine. Wet. Stranger. She’s puffing in. Out. Smoke in my hair. Anyone could see us and that’s part of the fun. Someone said it to someone else and now it’s part of the fun, isn’t it? My hand so far up her cunt she feels endless and I feel I want to hurt her somehow, with this. You’ve got a big dick, she cries. I push further in. I don’t think of Evelyn except when I become aware I’m not thinking of Evelyn. I’m going to cum. I won’t pull out. I can’t. I want her to finish all over my arm and maybe when she’s done and sated and in pain, maybe I’ll remember. I’m coming so fucking hard.
She doesn’t. It’s just spasms and launching backwards. Perhaps she guessed (or had hoped) I would rub my cunt against hers. She looks at her watch. That was nice. Your mom must be in her room by now. I’ll see you around.
Mom’s fortunate in comparison to her comrades. She walks and is able to remind herself to keep track of things. She’s also mostly gone after sundown. A syndrome, I’ve read online.
She wears her hair braided; a long and greyish drowsy rope. Her nightgown has pink bunnies and piglets performing several camp-like activities: fishing, telling stories around the fire, napping on hammocks.
She steps away from the window. Dust particles twirling in the stream of sunlight that haloes her back.
Yes? Do I know you?
It’s me. Paula. Your daughter.
You don’t look a lot like my daughter. Her round nose sharpens as she scrutinizes me from its tip. Are you one of her lady friends?
No, mom. It’s me.
She was always crying, she gazes up and down like she’s misplaced an essential clue to her narrative. Her ramblings are one of the reasons I often skip visiting. There is a texture to them, a certitude of having been left stranded halfway up a dream. She was loved, that girl. Too deeply. Smothered under it.
You should lay down for a while, mom.
Yes, mom. It’s me. Paula.
Yes, mom. I’m sorry. I’ve been busy. Work.
You look sick. Are you sick?
No, mom. I’m okay.
I keep forgetting things. Those words give off a proverbial stench. More and more every day. Sometimes I think I’m hiding them from myself.
I smell the blood dripping down the curve of my thighs and I think, even if I didn’t know before why I came here, I do know: she can carry this for me. She can take it in and forget it as she’s letting go of everything else.
Something’s wrong with me, momma. I’m tainted. My pain is real. This is what I’m most afraid of. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t write, I can’t fuck. I can’t even drive down here to see you. I’m so tired, momma. You didn’t deserve this. I killed it, momma. I hated it and I killed it. You didn’t deserve this, said the woman with the rubber gloves. It was mine and I killed it.
Why didn’t you come and visit? My mother weeps suddenly. You called, one time. I need to tell someone, you said. Tears. Her tears. Why are my cheeks damp then? I’m a box. I’m a flash of red. You said you stood quiet, and you shouldn’t have. Why did you? You can tell me now.
I was scared, momma. It felt like dying. She approaches me, the way a gothic heroine would as she faces the penitent ghost who’s been tormenting her in the final act. I was going to keep it. Leti’s words crash at the shore of my mouth. It was awful, but it was mine, momma.
This is the first time I say it to myself.
-the I You move through-
I get home. I am home.
Evelyn left a note: “I’m staying at Leti’s for a while”, it reads. She’s baffled I didn’t notice her clothes haven’t been hanging in the closet for a month. “I saw that thing. I don’t want to know. Not this”. A pause. “Take a look at the tapes”. Her name scribbled below this last sentence.
I climb upstairs.
You didn’t deserve this.
The woman with the rubber gloves warned me it would sting, then it would hurt and hurt so much.
I can’t remember him.
I gave the reception lady at the motel a check worth a month’s rent. She told me I had soiled my pants. When she guessed it right, afterwards, she claimed to have a friend who worked at the local clinic. The woman with the rubber gloves. You can’t keep it, she comforted me. It’s bad. You didn’t deserve this.
I guess I never really made it home from the valley. Not me. The girl who sucks at parties…she took my (her, our) place.
I wanted to tell someone…I wanted to tell Evelyn. I picked up the phone so many times. She heard my breathing on the other side and murmured my name. She wouldn’t have believed me. Or maybe she would have and she’d have stayed even if she felt like running, because I’d lied before, to keep her close and this…why would it be any different? I could show her the sparrow’s head. I could tell her this was inside of me and I killed it because it was bad and I didn’t deserve it.
What have I been doing while dreaming? Is this even “awake”? Awaken. Woken up.
There’s a cassette tape on the nightstand. Blue plastic case. I take it to the VCR and turn on the TV.
She (I, we) is shivering. Evelyn’s side of the bed is empty so she won’t be around to see what happens next…what happened before she retrieved the scissors sitting in the drawer amidst our sock collection and cut through the delicate tissue beneath her bellybutton.
She sits up straight. She’s crying. She watches him stumble into the room. He calls her a cunt.
I’m so tired.
The woman on the screen wants to get rid of something, she wants to forget, but it won’t stop coming back. It’s awful, but it is mine.
The video keeps playing while I step into the bathroom. Evelyn’s left the sparrow’s head on the counter. I lift it up; catch my reflection on the smeared surface of its pebble eyes.
My wound palpitates.
I pull the stitches and they come off one by one in a delicate harmony, like they are feeble strings on a harp.
I feel nothing. Not even when I prick it open and warm blood starts oozing. Not even when I push the sparrow’s head past the wet umbra of flesh torn and its beak grapples my insides.
I look up to the mirror and find myself smiling.
The recording stops. The screen goes black.
And for the first time, I’m not asleep, after.
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