didn’t know anything about her other than that her name was Laura, she
was very attractive and she seemed lovely. But I went home, woke my
friend up at 7am and said, “I just met the girl I want to marry. I love
this girl like, I love her. She’s perfect.”
Peeta was painting away, it was a hobby of his that had stuck with him throughout his whole life, even now as he had grown old… older so to say, his painting still stuck strong with him and he enjoyed it. Capturing the essence of someone, stranger, friend, lover, in a painting. It didn’t matter who they were, he needed to paint them, or even a scenary.
I pause in removing the bedpan from beneath the bed. She is looking up at the ceiling, as though there is a bright-bulb constellation to be found in the ever quivering, capricious lights.
Two years ago, when there were more tourists in the area, we tried to balance out our barely paid dues – snatching nearly spent lights from their sockets, blowing on the frazzled, sparking ends as though the moist warmth might stir up some sense to blaze in one last triumph. We’ve stretched many without hope for a replacement. Some have already sputtered out, bowed out in one fell swoop so that many hallways and bedrooms and the cordoned off, too crowded morgue are shadowy and cool and damp.
She squints with one bandaged hand over her brow says, “The stars are brighter than this.”
“I would imagine so,” I say drily. Today, I’m channeling the senior nurse on my floor. We call her Big Sister, because last month’s government is still raw-roasted from the latest coup and their doctrines are the only ones we have to seize upon: “We are all brothers and sisters in this great struggle for life, liberty and independence.”
I call her the Big Bother when I’m alone at bed or too far away and perhaps holding a bedpan as rickety and unreliable as my temper so she won’t dare pinch me.
Big Sister is always dry and humorless. She is the best at what she does, so it is very hard to resent her even when her fingers are clamped down on your flesh as firm and unyielding as a leech.
I am channeling her, rather than my usual favorite, Laya – who giggles and curls the seared remains of her curls around her fingers and teases the soldiers who we can hardly see around the bandages and the sweat and yesterday’s breakfast down their fronts – because today my sister hasn’t made her rote call from her post, miles and miles away in the dense lap of the forest where the enemy seats themselves in the highest trees with knives between their teeth and nets like webbing between their fingers, and it seems like the right time to be dry and humorless and reliable.
I’ve already pinched one patient, too, just to see how it felt. She came in with scars scabbing around her mouth from trying to swallow rubbing alcohol – a little scrap-soul, a tossed aside cut-out of a proper tablecloth of a family, bright and vibrant and well-worked and happy. She cried and cried and Big Sister came to slap me up the ear and told me that if I wanted to be troublesome, I might as well do it where the patients won’t even care because they are already somewhere else.
She coughs, licks her dry lips and says, “I was the moon.”
“So you told me,” I said. I sit on the edge of her bed and set the bedpan right back where it was. Big Sister will have another pinch waiting for me. I cannot bring myself to mind. “And the stars were brighter than this.”
She says, “We drank the souls of those who burned out. We lived off their heartbreak. I was soft-cheeked and fat and my sisters waited on me in their silver gowns and envied my suitor the sun, who hovered anxiously in my wake and let his golden smile warm my shoulders and add color to my cheeks.”
I draw my knees up to my chest and rest my head on them.
I understand that, living in the shells of those who already died. For six months when I was eight years old, my sister and I darted between our relatives’ houses and were hosted by their ghosts. I hung my grandmother’s chain about my neck and pushed her bracelets up my arms where the flesh would later swell from the pressure and the heat and blister so that I would bite my lower lip in order not to cry.
We sawed them off during the fifth government regime, and had them melted down in counterfeit coinage that would be swept off the table and deemed worthless not two weeks later when the new president was murdered by piranhas in his bath.
The bread it bought was worm-gnawed and mold-ridden. We laved it down with our raw tongues and swallowed it with tears in our eyes. We lived off our ancestors’ heartbreak. We burrowed our way into sealed cocoons and feasted on half-grown, not ripened largess: museum smashed and willingly shaken out like a child’s bank into foreign hands, breaking into locked mansions and pretending that it didn’t trouble us, not at all, to spend restless nights in the shroud-sheets of the already dead.
She says, “I was the moon. I did not fear the endless dark. I reveled in the night.” She swallows and taps my knee with one of her trembling fingers. “I was the moon. We bathed and left shimmery trails in the water in our wake. We lived always on a laugh, even when we were dozing off with our stomachs barely lined and our knees scraped up from chasing each other, hopeless and half-hearted, through the forest.”
I close my eyes and try to picture it, picture her shedding the hospital gown like a lizard would reject its impractical, mottled skin for something new and glowing and bright. I picture her with long hair that has not been roughly, cruelly bitten down by fires and imposing hands and not having enough of what is needed, whether that is a smile or a good meal or a little kindness without the expectation of reciprocation.
Perhaps she lay back on mattresses that never pinched or pockmarked her skin, like the princess from the old fairy tale text we ended up burning to ash in order to stay warm one night. (I always wondered if that hurt her, in the end, if that, too, could be felt as vibrant and tense and rigid as a solid pea.)
She tangled her legs with her giddy, giggling sisters and tickled them and had good parents who braided her hair and taught her to read and never begrudged her for living off their heartbreak - never complained over the callused palms and strained eyes and thin bellies.
She says, “I was the moon. I ran wild and headlong and let my beloved catch me, snarl-haired and laughing wide, in his arms. I followed in the wake of travelers who had none else to care for them. By my smile and my light, they found their way home.”
I should still be Big Sister, who laughs at the delusions and the daydreams and the “would that we had it” that the patients weave around their otherwise useless fingers like some of our mothers used to spin out bolts of cloth.
She recounts them to us, hair-raising fantasies of vengeance brought down on the heads of already dead and skeletal dictators, lush fever dreams where fruit juice spills over your tongue as heady and pure as a first kiss, soft, melancholy recollections of a father’s cleft chin or a beloved child’s first word.
She says them over the tea kettle in which she pours scummy lake water, perhaps with a dragonfly’s wing still snatched and snared in the mossy murk – breathing these wild and rampant wonders into the fetid depths. Later on, the creature will haunt my dreams, buzzing insistently about my head and darting to rest on the tip of my nose. I will pine for it when I wake, along with the fruit juice that sloshed down my throat and the dictator’s hair in my fist.
I still yearn for that world, that existence we are told was confining and cheap, ground our fathers down from steel spine legends into filings under a soldier’s boot.
There is such a great valley to straddle between the world we want, and the world as it is. I try my best to sprawl out my legs and ignore the insistent ache. I try to borrow, like extra sweaters and prized hairpins, the high airs and forced smile of Laya, who would not dare sit with a dirty bedpan under her feet this way, who wouldn’t knuckle her eyes like a child and sob this way.
I shouldn’t acknowledge anything more between us this way, anything in common between us at all except for the souls equally burned by our country’s Icarus appetite for more, the futile search for more take than the endless give of our land, our grown too soon match-stick girls, our own wasted and ruined marzipan sculpted resorts and hotels that used to be the lounging areas for our great tiger-king who prowled and snarled at his gilded cage captivity.
There is nothing more between us - between me and this thin-voiced, wide-eyed girl - except for the body who burnt all the way through, and the body that, scorched and scalded about the edges, disillusioned and used up, still drinks the scummy tea and counts the bruises instead of the lost constellations and tells herself, quite firmly, to borrow a skin and a face and a voice and a name if she must, in order to carry on the way she should.
Of course that is all it is.
Of course that is all it is.
I should quash the dream between my fingers like Big Sister does the flies and the pestilence in a boil. I should smile wide like Laya and ask if the suitor-sun had wandering hands as warm as his gaze.
I should take up a mask, form a shell from another’s existence, do all I can to burrow down and not let the weak, wandering soul I am peer through.
All of this is a dream. All of what she is saying is a dream.
She says, “I am the moon,” and I open my tear-blurred eyes and above our heads, the fluorescent light catches its second wind like a dying firefly and it sends down soft rays about us, caressing the thin hollows of her face, casting it gold and warm, ghosts of her sun-suitor’s kisses.
She is soft-cheeked and fat. She is wild and snarl-haired. She looks up at the steady glow of the light bulb that I’ve blown on and patted and forced back to life, and smiles softly.
“The stars are brighter than this.”
Big Sister finds me with my head pillowed in her lap and her fingers in my hair, head bowed over my sleeping form. I am pinched and prodded away from the patient so her pulse could be taken, the dirty bedpan shoved into my hands with its raw, decidedly not silver and shimmering sewage.
She is silent and still and the bulb has entirely blown out.
Big Sister says the bulb has been out for the past two nights.
Big Sister says the tea I haven’t drank was good water, clean water, strained through her own spare undershirt water with no hint of scummy and no taste of moss. I haven’t taken a single sip.
Big Sister asks what I’ve been thinking, dallying here with my hand fastened to a stranger – burnt all the way through, eyes fluttered close, no sign of glimmer or glow in her hollow cheeks.
Big Sister does not ask why my fingers are steadier than they have been in days, in months, as they wrap around her palm and I stumble off the bed, away from the cold, sun-scorned body and the turned down lips and everything that is not light and life and former love.
I say, feebly, softly, “She was the moon.”
Kaye M. remains fond of moonlit nights and dreamy, determined heroines. When she is not willing the right words to her fingertips, she is an online diversity advocate, essayist and overwhelmed undergrad student. Her debut MG, The Gauntlet (as Karuna Riazi), will release in Spring 2017 under Salaam Reads.
Kaye is one of five guests participating in 2016 The Hanging Garden showcase of aspiring authors. Each of the five aspiring authors will contribute a story to the five story cycles of the year. The next prompt begins on Monday!
I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in things because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.