This is the title of a short story I wrote that was published in the Fall Issue of Cobalt Review. I’ve copied it below. It’s very short.
It came together when I was working on a blog post about Wallace Stevens, one of my favorite poets. His “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” was on my mind while I was reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers.
Harding’s novel about a man on his deathbed looking back at his own and his father’s life reads almost like a prose poem at times, written in short, lyrical vignettes. I was reminded of my own mother’s death, which I remember as a succession of brief, intensely vivid scenes.
I first wrote of this experience in my blog post “The Deer’s Scream, My Mother’s Eyes, and a Ripe Strawberry.” I wondered how the story would unfold if modeled after Steven’s poem. This is the result of that experiment. While based on personal experience, it is fictionalized. I’d be very interested in hearing what you think.
13 Ways of Looking at Dying, Just Before, and the Moment After
By Deborah J. Brasket
She streaks past me naked in the dark hall. Light from the bathroom flashes upon her face, her thin shoulders, her sharp knees. Her head turns toward me, her dark eyes angry stabs. As if daring me to see her, stop her, help her. Or demanding I don’t.
I struggle up from the cot where I’ve been sleeping. Through the open doorway, she’s a slice of bright light, slumped on the toilet, the white tiles gleaming behind her.
She kicks the door shut in my face.
Late June she’s diagnosed. October first gone. Mid-August her strength rallies.
“I don’t think I’m dying after all,” she tells me. “They got it all wrong. As usual.”
“Don’t look at me like that,” she says.
The plums lie where they fall in the tall grass. I pass them on my way to the dumpster, where I toss plastic bags filled with fouled Depends, empty syringes, and morphine bottles.
On the way back to her apartment I gather up a few plums, passing over the ones pecked by birds, or burst open from the fall, or too soft to hold together, carefully selecting those with bright tight skins.
“Where did you get those? Did you pick them?”
“No, they were on the ground.”
“Garbage. Throw them out.”
“Garbage,” she insists. Her foot hits the lever, opening the trash can as I try to push past her.
When she’s not looking I fish them out and wash them in cold water. I place them in a bowl in the refrigerator next to the bottles of Ensure and pediatric water that she won’t touch.
When she’s asleep I take one out and press the cold, purple flesh against my lips, biting through the taut, tart skin to the soft, sweet meat beneath. Sucking up the juices.
“Come here. I want you to sit on my lap.”
“No, Mama. I’m too heavy. I’ll hurt you.”
“Come, I want to hold you, like I used to.” She pats her lap.
Her hands are all bone now, her nails long and yellow. Her pajama bottoms are so loose there’s almost no leg to sit on. I balance on the edge of the recliner and she pulls my head down to her chest.
“There now,” she says, “there now.”
I feel like I’m lying on glass. Like any second I’ll break through. Like the long sharp shards of her body holding me up are giving way, and I’m being torn to pieces in her arms.
“She says you stole her car.” The social worker from hospice sits on the couch with a pad and pen in her hand. She’s new. They’re always new. We’ve had this conversation before.
“It’s in the shop. The clutch went out, remember Mama?”
“You can’t have it. Bring it back.”
“You don’t need it. Besides you can’t drive.”
“Anna can drive me, can’t you Anna?”
Across from the social worker sits Anna, slumped on the hearth, biting her thumbnail. I sit facing my mother. We are like four points on the compass, holding up our respective ends.
“That’s not Anna’s job, to drive you.”
“I know what you’re doing,” she tells me between clenched teeth.
“What am I doing?”
“You know what you’re doing!”
Her fury flashes across the room in brilliant streaks, passing over Anna’s bent head, the social worker’s busy pen. It hits me full in the face. I do not flinch.
In spring the wild turkeys wander down from the hillsides and graze in the meadow behind our home. Sometimes they come into our yard and stand before the glass doors. Raising their wings and flapping furiously, they butt their hard beaks against the glass. Attacking what they take as another.
She’s moving in slow motion, inching across the room in her walker. Her sharp shoulders are hunched, her wide mouth drooped, her once silver hair yellow and dull. Dark eyes burn in sunken sockets.
Slowly her face turns toward me, her fierce, bitter-bright eyes fixed on mine.
“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says.
I kneel at her knees weeping. Her hands lightly pat my head.
When I look up her eyes are closed and she looks so peaceful. Her body sinks deep into the soft cushions steeped in her own scent. The wings of the chair, the arms and the legs, rise up around her, the sharp edges of her face and body sunk in softness.
If I could I would let her, cocooned like that, sink deep beneath the shade of the plum trees outside her window. Sink into the earth just like that.
The tight bitter skin broken through. All the sweet juices let loose.
The ground squirrels are popping up everywhere, their long tunnels weaving through the roots of the old oaks, loosening the soil that anchors them to the slopes. We fear they will eventually cause the trees to tumble and the hillside holding up our home collapse.
So we feed them poison, sprinkling it around the trees and along the squirrel-dug furrows, as if sowing seed. It’s the same stuff found in the Warfarin my husband takes to keep his blood thin and clot-free.
Sometimes I imagine them out there beneath the oak trees in the moonlight, the squirrels running in slow motion through dark tunnels while the blood running through their veins grows thinner and thinner. The light in their brains grows brighter and brighter until they finally explode, like stars, in a burst of white light.
She sits on the edge of the bed hunched over, letting me do what I will. The lamplight spills over our bent heads, catching the sheen on the tight skin of her calves.
I hold her bare foot in my hand and rub lotion into the dry skin, messaging the soft soles and the rough edges of her toes. I spread the thick lotion up her thin ankles and over the sheen of her legs where it soon disappears. I pour on more and more.
Her skin is so thirsty. There’s no end to the thirst.
I listen to her breathing in the dark from my cot in the next room. I hold my breath each time hers stops, waiting, listening. Sometimes minutes seem to pass before the rattle starts up again. Each time it’s longer and longer. Soon the minutes will turn to hours, the hours to days, then weeks, years.
How long can you hold your breath before your heart bursts?
I touch her hair, her cheek, before they wheel her into the room where she’s cremated. I wait while she turns to ashes.
It’s too dark to see when I hear the deer scream. There’s only the sound of thundering hooves and that long terrifying cry passing from one end of the meadow to the other, before crashing down a ravine.
It ends abruptly, as if a knife had sliced its throat.
I see the deer often in my dreams, screaming past me in the dark, slowly turning her head toward me. Fixing her fierce, bitter-bright eyes on mine.
I do not turn away. I let her drink and drink.
First published in Cobalt Review, Issue 9, Fall 2013, in a slightly modified version.
(Forgive me if this has shown up twice in your reader)