By Amber Kelly-Anderson
I began dying when I was four years old. My mum came to me in the night, breath sick with sour grape, eyelids falling, bearing secrets. After the rest of the house was quiet, she sat at the foot of my bed and fanned them out like a pack of playing cards. Using her magician’s trick she’d select one to hold before me, just out of reach, their faces running together until one secret was all secrets.
“Your dad is not your dad,” was the first she told me. “He’s someone else.” She swayed before steadying herself on the bed frame.
“He’s no one.”
Before I could ask another question, she crawled up the bed and placed her hand over my mouth.
“It’s just you and me. No one else can be with us.” Palm still pressed to my mouth, she curled into sleep next to me, her knees in my side.
Now, as I fight sleep and the screams it brings, I know I have become my mum, sewn to the point of bursting with secrets. I fight my battle as the dark end of the night approaches. The secrets float before me like . . .
Sea mist. It wraps my head like a bandage, mashing my ears, shoving at my nose and mouth, the vapor trickling through me. A pretty silver morphine drip that can’t keep me warm anymore. It forces down my throat: not smooth or cool or soft—it’s bitter and tastes of teatobaccomilk. Can’t spit it out; can’t swallow it down. My cheeks are stinging with cold biting flames that jigger up my face, turning the mist pale gold. I throw my body to an edge, a mattress corner in my gut, eyes pressed tight. I retch out the mist.
* * * * *
I am walking on a beach with Mum. Now I’m seven and Dad, or whoever he was, is gone. Among the seaweed is a black stingray. On its back, the tide is washing over its gasping, sightless child face, gravity and impotence pinning it to the sand.
Leave it, Mum says. It’ll sting you to death if you try to save it. Some things hurt us too much to be saved.
Maybe the Yawkyawk will come, I tell her.
She won’t come for this . . . something so small, she says. She wishes she’d never told me about Yawkyawk, I can feel it. But she had to tell me something after the night of first secret.
“Yawkyawks helped make the world with the rest of the spirits,” she began. “They can change things, make life where it wasn’t before. But they can take it too, if you make them mad. When I was working for Mr. Alcorn, cleaning his house and living in his shed while Dad was away, one night the frogs were so loud that I thought it might be a bunyip come to hunt at the waterhole. I walked to the edge of the water. Far and wide I searched; didn’t see anything. Figured it must have been in my mind. When I leaned to drink from the waterhole, I saw Her, just like the stories. Her hair was silver-green in the moonlight, spun of glimmering algae, and her skin glowing like a pearl, the face of angels. I waved to Her, recognizing Her even if she hadn’t said Her name. She waved back and raising her arms above her head, dove into the water, her tail of glittering scales splashing behind her. Never saw her again, but she blessed me that night. With you.”
So I pray that Yawkyawk will come and take the stingray so that it might live on in the sea. Maybe if I hope enough, the spirit will grow her legs in the daylight and save the dying. She doesn’t. Yawkyawks never come until it’s too late. It dies, like so many others, and I choke on salt.
* * * * *
Things are gray on the other side of my eyelids, but I don’t taste ash. I’m not in the camp. They might change the smell, but they couldn’t change the taste. Not even they have that power.
My throat isn’t burning from bleach and piss, so it isn’t the hospital. I’m not laying on a dingy mattress with my mind a blank soup which I can only attempt to spoon thoughts through a slotted spoon. Not the hospital.
Dead? Not dead. No, I don’t think so. Soon, I know it’ll be soon. But it isn’t now; my bones hurt too much.
Before my mind becomes too clear, the mist flicks at me with its chilled fingers—my ribs, my knuckles, the sides of my knees, the bottoms of my toes, my jaw. Flick, flick at the ribs. Each flick makes a dull, hollow sound, like there is nothing underneath. It flicks so hard I think it breaks the skin. I hope I bleed. Blood means life.
There was a time, back in Stalag, when my belly was full of horse hair and broth, that I thought those ribs would rip through my paper flesh, bone through skin. I used to count them by running my fingers over them at night as I lay on the ground of the barracks, in between pinching at the lice and fleas and trying to drown out the crying, coughing, and gasping.
When the rifle broke one, I counted it as two. Some kriegies didn’t even look human anymore. What a threat we must have been. A band of bloody skeletons sipping death and calling it coffee, pretending to be men when we were nothing but beasts, sitting in our own shit and waiting for the war to end.
* * * * *
It’s darker now, I think. Things seem black and I hear nothing but my own heart. No birds, no insects, no groaning of the house. All at once the mist senses where my mind has gone and, wanting to force me further, begins to rain pinpricks of cold pain. It pushes through my skin until my marrow chills and my mind goes into the dark tunnel. Maybe I’m asleep still. Maybe I’m awake.
It’s not real, I tell myself. I hear someone (a doctor?) say in a bored voice:
You know it’s not real. It’s all in your head.
It’s not real.
That’s right. It’s not real. Now open your eyes, the voice tells me.
I want to disobey, to squeeze them tighter, but I can’t help it. Even though I feel the pelting mist, even though I taste something dirty on the air, I open my eyes.
I am staring at the muddy snow. It’s late, somewhere in the dark end of the night. But the ground is lit up so that the snow blinds me, even with its streaks of dirt. I see a shadow pacing in front of me, but I don’t look up. My breath is a cloud that stings my eyes as it escapes my mouth. I am standing barefoot in the dirty snow, in only my gray stained shorts. We’ve been here for hours, years it seems. I can’t remember anything that isn’t the misery of being cold and waiting for . . . for whatever. Some nights, if we shiver too much, one of them will piss on our feet and laugh as the steam rises. Tonight we don’t get that.
Trying to protect my body, my shoulders fold forward. My hands clasp in front of me. I want to curl into myself and disappear.
Sich aufrichten, the voice says.
I don’t move, only listen to puffing and coughing around me.
Sich aufrichten, the voice says louder, closer.
The snow drifts in soft patterns illuminated by the yard lights. I wonder if this is what they write about in all those Christmas songs. When I was a boy I always wanted it to snow in Perth. Now my fear is that my corpse will be dusted in those soft white flakes as it waits to rot.
My eyes swing to one side, glancing at the figure to my right. Jimmy, I think his name is. I can’t remember though. It’s too cold. We’ve been out here . . . I don’t know anymore. All I know is that it burns.
Jimmy’s collarbone is sticking out at such a stark angle, I wondered if I tried hard enough if I could wrap my hands around it, holding it like a bone bicycle handlebars. He’s a shriveled white suit hanging on a coat hanger. Not that he was much to begin with—eighteen, I’d guess, especially the way he talks about his mum and his girl with his thick Yank accent. He comes from the middle of the States, North or South Something. He’s one of the ones who cries after lights out. We pretend not to notice.
Sich aufrichten. The voice is behind me. It curdles in my ear.
Did you not hear me, the voice says, not asks, in English. I said, Straighten up.
I try to pull my shoulders back, lift my chest, show I’m not afraid, but I can’t move. The crunch of boots on snow seems to echo through my head. Any minute I will feel it: the rifle butt in my back, followed by the boot sending me to my knees. Gritting my teeth, I try to unfurl my spine. It’s so cold I don’t notice that my tongue is caught between my teeth until I taste blood, which freezes on my lips.
The crunching stops and I wait to be hit. Brace my body for the impact.
The groan is so quiet, I think only I can hear it as it escapes my throat. But then I am standing and there is a thud to my right. I can see Jimmy, not even on his knees, but crumbled in the snow. Nothing moves.
Steh auf..! A different voice. Angry. Get up!
Jimmy doesn’t stir. A bayonet tip pokes him, shifting the pale figure in the snow. Soft as a kiss goodnight, the snowflakes come to rest on the curled white shape. Retracting the bayonet, a dark shadow covers Jimmy’s body.
Dieses eine ist tot.
Even though I don’t speak their language, one of the few words I know is tot. Dead. Whether from the cold, or the hunger, or the gun—who knows—probably all three.
You, the bored voice returns. Get him out of here.
I stare at Jimmy, what little bit remains that isn’t covered in snow, with a prayer caked in the blood on my lips.
I am talking to you, it hisses. The scabbard of a bayonet, searing cold metal, slashes my back, knocking me to my knees.
In that moment I hope I will die like Jimmy.
Get the body out of here. Or you will be next.
I press my hands into the snow, leaving behind two perfect handprints. Somehow I push myself to my feet and step toward Jimmy. Without thinking, I brush the flakes away from his body which is colder than the snow around it.
Gentle, like picking up a sleeping child, I slide my hands under his knees and neck. I’m so weak from cold and hunger, I don’t know how I’ll lift him, but then his figure is so fragile and light, I’m afraid I might shatter it.
Come with me, the angry voice orders.
As I walk through the snow, the lifeless boy’s cold body pressed to my bare chest, I raise my head. My eyes meet the owner of the bored voice. His face is sharp and white, eyes pale, a tuft of yellow hair sticking out from under his hat.
Danke schön, he mocks. Thank you.
His eyes dance like coals and I long to pluck them out. Even though my body is numb with cold, my eyes burn as I feel them darken with hate.
He tips his hat at me.
Hurry up, the angry voice barks.
At the gate to the camp there is a pile of snow the size of a hill. I know what it is under the pure white flakes. My feet are heavy as I clutch Jimmy closer. I don’t want to place him on the hill. No one should be left like this. I hesitate.
The bayonet makes up my mind. He’s stiff as I place him on the top of the hill. I’m afraid his thin skin will have frozen to mine and I will have to peel bits of him from my chest. I don’t. In fact, it’s easy to set him down; still my arms feel heavier when they’re empty. His eyes are open. I try to close them, but they are frozen in place. They just stare at me, hopeless and vacant. The wild urge rushes through me to scream, sob, throw myself on Jimmy—something to mark this boy’s passing. He’ll be thrown into the same unmarked grave, another one gone, like he never lived. Vomit rises in my throat and I force it down. I can’t let them see. So I gag on it. Silent.
Desperately I claw through my memory for a prayer, a verse, something to say. I can’t remember anything that isn’t misery. Instead I look to the sky, hoping that the stars will guide me.
The moon is a boot-crushed skull.
* * * * *
I am once more on the beach, little Johnny at the shore, dying ray at his feet. One more casualty with no one to save it. It will sting anyone who tries. I search the horizon for signs of her, knowing she must come. Squeezing my eyes tight, I hope that I’ll open them to see a change in the water, the splash of a fin.
Instead I find I am looking up at a sad faced little boy, his mouth twitching, hands reaching for me. My lungs are screaming and I am drowning on air, sinking slowly into the sand. Somehow I don’t mind. The sand is soft and warm. My mind is clear for the first time, although my sight is fading. There is an orange cloud raining above me, smothering me with its tears.
I know how I will end, that she will not come, and I am sorry for the boy. I want to tell him to run along, that there is a world waiting for him, a world that I am not a part of. It is then that I wish Yawkyawk would come, not to give me life, but to take it, so that the boy might let me go and see that this is the way of the world. I want to free him from caring for a dying creature that can only hurt. Without warning, I feel his hand coming to me, touching me, releasing the sting. Before it can leave my body and rip through his, I sit up in bed into the clear light of day.
It is then that I know. I’m the mermaid. I have the power to give life.
* * * * *
The kitchen smells of coffee and my mother, stands at the sink, humming to herself. Her eyes take me in and I can see in the way her mouth turns down, the way one eye twitches slightly, everything I need to know about her feelings. For so many years I’ve thought she hated me—hated the drinking, the yelling, the insults, the things we don’t talk about. She’s hated the secrets she kept from me and the lies she’s confided.
Mum and me, we’re just alike. Packed with straw secrets, itching bits of the past ready to burst into flames. She knows, even without me telling her, how weak I am because she is the same. We hated each other for it.
My kids are gathered around, eating breakfast and making a racket. My heart pulls. I don’t want to let them go just yet. In the background I hear Mum.
“School time, kids. Move on or you’ll be late.”
“Why not let them stay with me today,” I beg. Her distrust of me coils from her face like the smoke of her cigarette.
“School time, John,” she repeats. “They can’t stay with you.”
The faces, four or five, each one me before Me broke to pieces. The boy, he’s like my pictures from before I knew what grief was. Happy Johnny-boy.
“Johnny then,” I hear myself say. “Let me keep Johnny, just for today.” The silence of years passes between us and she, for just a moment, stands where I stand.
* * * * *
After the girls have gone, Johnny and I play. It’s a game he’s invented with bits of string and some rocks from the yard. I don’t understand the rules and he gets frustrated with me. He tells me a story about some swamp animal. The words give way to the music of his cadence, a melody I can’t quite place.
“So will you come see, Dad?” I hear him ask.
“Sure,” I lie. I look at the clock. Time has gone by so fast. “Let me have a bit of a lie down and I’ll be ready to see.”
“Hooray!” Johnny cheers and races out of the room. Involuntarily my hand reaches after him, snatching only air.
Half-closed, the bedroom door creaks like it will shut before settling still. Out of the bottle they pour, each little piece that will take me away. Like Jimmy, they are light and go down without any help.
Lying back on the bed, I hear Johnny singing an old song I taught him, maybe to the animal. My voice is in his.
Somewhere in the distance I hear a bird call; even now its call sounds like a cry.
The mist circles me and I welcome it, let it pour through me. It’s so easy. A piece at a time, I feel myself vanish. My toes go first, one through ten. Then each foot. They don’t hurt or sting; they just vanish until all that remains is my head and my hands—my betrayers that would destroy the only things that matter. And at long last, they too fade.
It’s so easy.
I hope there’s a heaven once the screams have gone.
Amber Kelly-Anderson is a Texas-based writer and professor. Her work has been The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Sprout, Roots, Brain Child, Whispering Prairie Press, and Sincerely, Fiction. For 2013 she is also a blogger for Ploughshares. Amber can be found at www.generationcake.com or @Akellyanderson.