She Fades

I can’t keep her here with me, she’s gone now. Maybe I do think of her as a ghost, the ghost of a dead girl, a little girl who died when she was five. I remember the pictures of us I had once, me holding her, standard poses, mother and baby, locked in a frame, for safety. Behind my closed eyes I can see myself as I am now, sitting beside an open drawer, or a trunk, in the cellar, where the baby clothes are folded away, a lock of hair, cut when she was two, in an envelope, white blonde. It got darker later.

I don’t have those things any more, the clothes and hair. I wonder what happened to all our things. Looted, dumped out, carried away. Confiscated.

I’ve learned to do without a lot of things. If you have a lot of things, said

Aunt Lydia, you get too attached to this material world and you forget about spiritual values. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek. She didn’t go on to say anything about inheriting the earth.

I lie, lapped by the water, beside an open drawer that does not exist, and think about a girl who did not die when she was five; who still does exist, I hope, though not for me. Do I exist for her? Am I a picture somewhere, in the dark at the back of her mind?

They must have told her I was dead. That’s what they would think of doing. They would say it would be easier for her to adjust.

Eight, she must be now. I’ve filled in the time I lost, I know how much there’s been. They were right, it’s easier, to think of her as dead. I don’t have to hope then, or make a wasted effort. Why bash your head, said Aunt Lydia, against a wall? Sometimes she had a graphic way of putting things.

“I ain’t got all day,” says Cora’s voice outside the door. It’s true, she hasn’t. She hasn’t got all of anything. I must not deprive her of her time. I soap myself, use the scrub brush and the piece of pumice for sanding off dead skin. Such puritan aids are supplied. I wish to be totally clean, germless, without bacteria, like the surface of the moon. I will not be able to wash myself, this evening, not afterwards, not for a day. It interferes, they say, and why take chances?

I cannot avoid seeing, now, the small tattoo on my ankle. Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse. It’s supposed to guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape. I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national resource.

I pull the plug, dry myself, put on my red terrycloth robe. I leave today’s dress here, where Cora will pick it up to be washed. Back in the room I dress again. The white headdress isn’t necessary for the evening, because I won’t be going out. Everyone in this house knows what my face looks like. The red veil goes on, though, covering my damp hair, my head, which has not been shaved. Where did I see that film, about the women, kneeling in the town square, hands holding them, their hair falling in clumps? What had they done? It must have been a long time ago, because I can’t remember.

Cora brings my supper, covered, on a tray. She knocks at the door before entering. I like her for that. It means she thinks I have some of what we used to call privacy left.

“Thank you,” I say, taking the tray from her, and she actually smiles at me, but she turns away without answering. When we’re alone together she’s shy of me.

I put the tray on the small white-painted table and draw the chair up to it. I take the cover off the tray. The thigh of a chicken, overcooked. It’s better than bloody, which is the other way she does it. Rita has ways of making her resentment felt. A baked potato, green beans, salad. Canned pears for dessert. It’s good enough food, though bland. Healthy food. You have to get your vitamins and minerals, said Aunt Lydia coyly. You must be a worthy vessel. No coffee or tea though, no alcohol. Studies have been done. There’s a paper napkin, as in cafeterias.

I think of the others, those without. This is the heartland, here, I’m leading a pampered life, may the Lord make us truly grateful, said Aunt Lydia, or was it thankful, and I start to eat the food. I’m not hungry tonight. I feel sick to my stomach. But there’s no place to put the food, no potted plants, and I won’t chance the toilet. I’m too nervous, that’s what it is. Could I leave it on the plate, ask Cora not to report me? I chew and swallow, chew and swallow, feeling the sweat come out. In my stomach the food balls itself together, a handful of damp cardboard, squeezed.

Downstairs, in the dining room, there will be candles on the large mahogany table, a white cloth, silver, flowers, wine glasses with wine in them. There will be a click of knives against china, a clink as she sets down her fork, with a barely audible sigh, leaving half the contents of her plate untouched. Possibly she will say she has no appetite. Possibly she won’t say anything. If she says something, does he comment? If she doesn’t say anything, does he notice? I wonder how she manages to get herself noticed. I think it must be hard.

There’s a pat of butter on the side of the plate. I tear off a corner of the paper napkin, wrap the butter in it, take it to the cupboard and slip it into the toe of my right shoe, from the extra pair, as I have done before. I crumple up the rest of the napkin: no one, surely, will bother to smooth it out, to check if any is missing. I will use the butter later tonight. It would not do, this evening, to smell of butter.

I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.

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