Deborah DeNicola is the winner of the 2013 Carol Bly Short Story Contest sponsored by Writers Rising Up with her story “Come Alone to the Alone.” http://www.writersrisingup.org/carol-bly-short-story-contest/essay-winners/carol-bly-short-story-contest/deborah-denicola-2013-winner-carol-bly-short-story-contest
Come Alone to the Alone
Come, True light.
Come Life Eternal,
Come, Treasure without Name.
Come, Alone to the Alone . . .
—An Invocation to the Holy Spirit by Saint Symeon
It was hard to tell if it was morning or afternoon from Anastasia’s view. Out the sliding glass doors, a world of pink-lined clouds and reflecting water. She used to know the time instinctively by the light, where it fell, where it failed to fall, where it shadowed. There was such confusion now, she dreaded appearing foolish, best to be quiet, keep her noise inside, keep anxiety from detonating into livewire energy. Cling to that growing sense that she was lightly tethered to the earth. And here beside her wheelchair was the same scattering of women, always there, or so it seemed, as she remembered. Back when she could remember.
They came and went interchangeably. What did it matter if their skin color was black or white or something in between? She was alone with The Alone inside a great, floating bubble. And when she spoke or seemed to speak, the bubble swelled its membrane, voices rocking through like the ocean down the street. When they spoke, she felt they were all under water. These faces, wide-angled and drifting in and out of her own, were indecipherable, untranslatable.
One face, she knew, belonged to her oldest daughter, the one who could never find a decent job, preferring to hide in her room painting flowers. Those of the darker complexion were more familiar. They held her hands, fed her, dressed her each day, gently lifted her thin arms, her crooked elbows, through the armholes of sweaters and blouses. They spoke in a language of lilting music and their sounds reverberated, bouncing about her brain without meaning. She would smile and nod but mostly she was too tired to play along when memories swam into underworld craters, never clear enough to turn a corner. She couldn’t completely follow their chatter, a kind of birdscat comprehensible only by its rhythm and lull that sang her in and out of a cradle-like sleep.
Where she was, why and how she got there fit together in her mind like mis-matched puzzle pieces or frames with no interior landscape. Had it always been so? She thought she recognized those green gauzy drapes, hadn’t they forever veiled her world? Sometimes, one of the black-faced girls (was she a girl or a boy?) doused Anastasia’s mouth in lipstick, powdered her nose and plunked a mirror down in front of her. She couldn’t refuse her own reflection but it was not the self she recalled. When did my hair go silver? Why am I no longer blonde? What is that mushrooming growth on my forehead? Sometimes her very self was enclosed in the glass—just another weird capsule she swallowed and found herself inside of. Anastasia of Wonderland, that’s who she was now.
Other times the faces fed her flavored applesauce, colors like iodine. “Where is the boy?” She once questioned when her mind could still bully words into a sentence. “Anastasia, I am a woman, I have breasts, look!” the so-called boy protested, lifting her scrubs to expose a lace brassiere and two plump bosoms fully in their prime. “Why you can solve any problem!” Anastasia replied aloud, amazed this boy could also be a girl. But that was months ago. Now she no longer spoke. Now her pills were crushed; now she no longer fed herself. But when she forgot—and she so easily forgot—the dominant thought roaring haywire down her neuron runways was always a plea to be left alone.
And always the daughter’s pale, freckled face, those stone-washed eyes hidden behind large glasses. When had she aged? She was not as Anastasia remembered. The adolescent doll she’d dressed up for years. And wasn’t there another daughter’s face occasionally buoying up and down? Were there really two? If she could only count, she might recall.
Days stretched along the finger canals, stretched under the bridges where geckos were hidden, stretched down from these dark waters into the Intercoastal and farther into the sea where they backed up on themselves repetitiously in foamy waves. But she herself was damaged, an oily spillage blackening her mind like a swarming army conquering a country. There were fewer synapses firing and deeper neuron ditches. Days were redundant. Nights, impossible. The long dream moving into evening blurred with her disturbed perceptions. Still there were meals to consume. Pasta or baked potatoes. Lucia fed her each day as the daughter alternately hovered and hid. But lately she had clamped her lips, the taste was so stale, the texture, beyond heavy. So much effort to chew and then she had to remember to swallow.
They studied her and Anastasia was annoyed with the vigil. She could not admit it but her own daughter made her nervous, the way she gaggled about, always on the phone or fussing with money in her wallet or looking into that small TV she carried around. Kids and their toy gadgets. Spoiled brats, all. And her daughter talked to everyone about her, even in front of her blank face. Just because she didn’t respond to their silly stimuli, their baby talk and baby toys, didn’t mean she missed the entire gist of the conversation.
Denial was comfortable, a beautiful thing. But a voice within insisted, you are trapped in a body that no longer responds to commands from a mind with cracks and gaps and sticky tar balls. Come alone, come alone to the alone . . . The voice scared her. It was as if she was outside the three dimensions, crossing back and forth into some floating world with transparent specters swimming about. The long gone husband, the seven siblings who had slipped gracefully into the heaven she couldn’t find. Her elderly parents appeared in doorways smiling, reaching their hands toward her. From one spongy moment to the next, shapes grew large and then dissolved.
All of them, the flesh and blood ones, were watching her now. A nurse had come and wrapped her arms in the pressure of measures. Anastasia knew enough to pretend she understood procedures; she recognized white lab coats from some clouded place far back in her brain. She still wanted to be seen as agreeable and aware. For all her disdain at the boring reportage, she tried to listen. Half of someone’s sentence might make sense then the latter part would cut the cord to understanding, clauses became loose words with no foundation, their roots would rise and float among the other dirigibles, spitting alphabets of doubt. Time itself had time-outs.
She’d lift into the ethers for an extended stay like the big balloons the elder daughter brought in on her birthday. Anastasia was helium clinging to the ceiling. Round shapes gaped above the heads of grandchildren. She didn’t know the names of these smiling boys but knew they were babies yesterday, and today, almost men. She rode the moments that replayed themselves over and over. Weren’t these same people in the room yesterday? What déjà vu keeps rewinding? Why do they look at me with such urgency, like starving puppies?
It had become too busy. Doors opening and closing, people to and fro, trays of food, bright packages on the armchair. A new bed that moved magically up and down. Anastasia suspected that someone was at the helm of this confusion, and she looked quietly for her aide. She couldn’t remember when she’d ever had a black girl in her house but just the same, she wanted Lucia to feed her and Lucia to take her away into the bedroom, to lift her atrophied legs onto the bed, tuck her stiff arms into a nightgown, remove her from the din of language. Her favorite moments were sitting alone with Lucia, each of them with her respective magazine. She tried to read, even though it was all pretense and lost its meaning soon enough.
In her head she spoke to God. After a lifetime of praying, this? Anger arose though she couldn’t articulate it. Sometimes she was insulted seeing her daughter fawning over her, the others cooing. Embarrassed by this much attention, she felt a stone would go hard in her stomach. When it tightened, she closed her eyes, kept them shut through journeys to different daylight. This intense focus streaming all around her. Too much. All she’d ever asked was not to become a burden. And now they’d made of her a burden. How could she ever forgive them?
She expected to expire, but how? How to die when the sun came through the curtains each morning with some figure standing over the bed ready to bathe her? Life with no memory—no regrets—what was the point of death when she had all she needed with these patient girls who came and went? She had once loved her daughter, though, of course, she had proven an inept caretaker, and definitely now she preferred Lucia.
She stared at “The Madonna of Fatima” framed on the wall and she used to like it when the daughter prayed with her, but now words were just so much dust brushed off the knick- knacks. Whatever happened to her purse, her money? How lovely to no longer care. Perhaps living was not so bad. The aides handled her like glass, and her daughter meant well. She wanted to see her succeed at whatever it was she did that appeared to drive her crazy. But living, even now, in this condition, had to have some purpose. She sought understanding as if she could trace it out of the photographs she barely recognized. Sometimes a space would clear in her mind like a camera brings angles into focus, and for a short time she would remember years back, her grandmother, cornflowers in a field on the farm. The butter churn. Her brothers herding the cows.
Later it had been a life of comfort and travel, children, graduations, vacations. But no one would know how she suffered when her husband passed away so suddenly, so young. How something shifted inside her, as if she’d swallowed a rat and it slowly chewed through her abdominals. Only now it had reached the nodules in her brain, the dense matter, like meat one cuts open to assess temperature and toughness.
After the tragedy something inside shut tight and never opened again. She housed a home for a rodent within her body. Still, she became an actress, a gracious hostess, the matriarchal monument whom all seemed content to believe in. She’d given parties, backyard barbecues, a drunken neighbor fell once into the privet hedge . . . She nearly smiled now, remembering. The children laughed. The children grew.
But why were they all speaking at once in another language in a register she’d never heard? If she closed her eyes maybe the sounds could clear. Still one would imagine the bubbles above their heads with words in them, and she couldn’t depend on those designs entertaining her as the dramatic daughter emoted loudly, like her husband always had, often on the verge of manic-panic. How could she die in the midst of the repressed hysteria tightening around her? How could she leave when she was so obviously needed?
No one had known. Stoic, and proud of herself for that, even as she saw the life she’d had as the Doctor’s wife, the parties, country clubs, new cars, family photos . . . drain into an abyss of disappointment. There had been so much hope. He’d been a good man until the end, but no one in his family would help when she’d asked, each one turning away. In those days there were no ”twelve steps,” no support groups, just the elephant squatting in the living room. She needed to spare her kids the truth, save them from what no one was strong enough to bear—no one but herself. Yet without the adequate time allocated to grieving, she never recovered her own ebullience and life lost its luster.
Still, she’d stood up tall and raised those children, dammit, watching every penny. She’d put them through college, into cars and marriages—until she could sell everything and move to Florida, then travel the world on her own . . . Eventually the lies she told them about their father’s death took hold and stuck. The picture she painted could have hung in the hall next to his own self-portrait. A few martinis and Johnny Carson mixed the facts up and made it all go away.
Wasn’t it bed time now? Why wouldn’t they undress her? She tore at buttons, rustled material through her fingers . . . why did they snap her back up? She sat rigid in her wheelchair and after a minute or two, the irritation in her brain snagged and pulled until she was back at it, all thumbs . . .
Before bed, she must check the house. The daughter would leave lights on, doors unlocked, windows open. She rocked the wheelchair back and forward, got it up on one wheel until her aide stood and forcefully straightened her, pinning her foot. A nursing home wouldn’t allow the much-needed restraining belt that continually saved her from a fall.
But she thought she could buck right up out of the wheelchair unharmed on her own. And she was too angry to be grateful when forcefully stopped from a dangerous fall. She looked around the room at all of them. How could she leave the chores to others, how to sleep without double-locking the patio doors? Would they remember to close off the porch, turn on the alarms, set the thermostat, check faucets? How to sleep, how to ever let go into eternal sleep when her daughter might burn down the house?’
Something exploded in her head. Not pain, but a cacophony in color as if a flower truck smacked a building head-on. They surrounded her now, wringing her arms as she heard words of a prayer all askew, skidding over the air. The girl must have laid her in her bed. The priest’s finger on her forehead. Hail Mary Full of Grace . . . She couldn’t find the lines . . . something . . . something . . . and . . . “the hour of death.” She pleated the sheets with her marbled fingers as if shifting her rosary beads. Pear-shaped tears pooled in the daughter’s eyes.
Suddenly Anastasia sent forth a breath, and with effort, the smallest bud of a smile—while the rest of her, what was left of her—tumbled—tossed like a bridal bouquet into the open sun—then broke— into fresh blooming petals for them all to scatter. For them to catch as catch can where they may.