danielshortell: reproached

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His papery skin stretches taught across wormy veins and flickering bones as he taps his fingers on the tabletop. Those hands. The hands of father, aged to a wizened perfection or thereabouts, speaking volumes of fragility, years of work. She rubs the lotion gently across the little scales, blending creamy white into paper causing it to glisten in the late morning sun. Another day, another fortuitous day.

Bundled against the cold, they sit sipping smoky tea on the porch, the quiet of the mountains hovering over them like a watchful mother monitoring a sleeping infant. They trade looks, feeling out the sentiments of one another, not bothering to convolute feelings with words. Sips, swallows, stares, the language of two people rapt in a moment of reflection, only vaguely aware of immediate concerns.

He coughes and she starts to aid, pulls back and watches him swallow fear. She's patient and he knows it. He's forgiving and that's her greatest fear. They play this little game every morning. Little is said. Little needs to be said as this is a chess game of subtle moves, feeling one another out for the appropriate response. Test, nudge, test. Feeling one's way through a precarious situation.

The diagnosis was bleak. Little chance for recovery, but a long wait until the end. Not exactly a painful wait, but the ultimate wait nonetheless, nerve-wracking and exhausting. She had always been there. Always there to help, always there to deflect the pain or absorb the shame. She was the oldest, the most responsible.

Not all days are tranquil, some were difficult to bear, and these days were becoming increasingly frequent with time. The most conflicted were those where she found herself caring for him the way she wished to care for her daughter. Baby wipes and diapers were meant to be a part of her life yet. Perhaps not the most enjoyable undertaking, but it trumped any discernable alternative.

Money never offered up any solutions, primarily because of its short supply. Assistance came in the cold nose of a dear friend, but that type of help didn't wipe bottoms or clean sheets. It did, though, lift spirits on the worst days. Any other assistance was, for the most part, divine, and helped to numb the memories of better, less complicated days.

The other two left quickly upon reaching adulthood, not feeling they had much of a connection or an obligation to help. Mom, she said her goodbyes young, then, found herself a happy life half a world away. So the two of them just sit, watch, wait for time to pass as comfortably as possible. Spring is right around the corner, and it is nearly time to start preparing for the rebirth of the garden. Each season she performs the backbreaking work to put food on the table, dirt to dish. Dish to shit. Shit to diaper. Diaper to dirt. An on and on.

Little hands and little feet invade her dreams. Little pink onesie. A swollen breast. Talcum powder after a close shave or maybe for a diaper rash? Either way the smell of it wakes up with her in the morning, leaving her to answer the question forming vaguely in her head. The promise of a new day spits forth memories of the present and being awake feels more like a dream than dreaming. She buries her pain by tending to him. Her duty, her child.

He is grateful, and it shows. Kisses on the cheek, a playful slap on the behind, the humbling, self-deprecating jokes about male equipment dated far beyond its useful life laying bare for all to see. She hates the little jokes but realizes that coping mechanisms aren't the tools of the eloquent, but rather, the guerilla tactics of the infirmed. She lets him have his say, doesn't encourage it, but, sidesteps it as if dodging the recklessness of a child on a bike out of control. A child that, perhaps, never really learned how to ride properly in the first place.

Time for a shave. The blade moves cautiously along the splotchy, loose skin, hitting little road bumps of flesh as she carefully navigates the best path. His eyes are closed, trusting in a steady hand, fresh eyes, and a thick lather. He knows she hates the sight of blood, and will do anything to avoid stirring any up even as it waits patiently behind a thin, porous veneer. One careful stroke at a time. Shake the blade in hot water. Wipe with a towel. Talcum. Barbershop style.

Rarely do they speak of the incident, especially in this past year. He knows it pains her, well, he has a fuzzy recollection of her pain. It comes to him in drips, little flashes of memories, fleeting and difficult to grasp. His understanding is that it is not his fault, her baby wouldn't have stood a chance in this world. She was poor. He was poor. They are both still poor, and that is only the beginning. A child that far behind before even getting started just doesn't stand a chance. And that is basically where his failing mind loses friction with the realities of the past. Memories are more elastic now than anything, pliable; they aren't firmly attached to any particular brain cell providing clear, concrete depictions of the past. Most of his memories are constructed from the few certainties which remain, and the little emotional indicators on her face, which, vary depending on the direction of the sun.

She wants to shake him, tell him her thoughts, explain to him how things could have been, but she is a realist. She knows how that scenario would play out and the conflicted tears they will share only in time space, certainly not in the heart. If she could only reach him. If he could only hear. If the clocks could only be turned back a few years. But there is too much to be done, so, hoping will have to wait. Mouths need food. Baby needs diaper. Mother needs rest.

They call from time to time, ask how things are going and such. Not to offer up any real assistance, but to calm their inner demons crying out from within. Abandonment is an appropriate word, but so is survival. Her younger brother sent along a bag of used clothes last winter. Her younger sister called up to ask if they needed a new refrigerator cause she was looking to replace her old one. "It still works perfectly fine, I just don't have the space for it." She always graciously accepts the little help she gets, but turns down any overtures aimed at changing her situation. She wouldn't have it and both of them have years of failed attempts cataloged in their minds. Many different tactics all with the same end, nothing successful, ever. Staunch is a good word, but conflicted is probably more accurate.

Mom never called, and, never will. She escaped young, reinvented herself, destined to stay vivacious, optimistic, living for the future. It's not that she doesn't care, it's that she has to survive, just like the rest of us. Who could blame her? She didn't leave when things got really tough. She left way before that. You don't say no to Prince Charming, really, who could blame her? She had been replaced, so, he too would be replaced.

She was so small when it arrived on planet earth, to the slurping sounds of a vacuum cleaner. He was there to comfort her, as if there was anyone else but him to comfort her. "This is the right move" he reminded her, selling her on a decision she barely made. He was relieved. She was confused. It was gone. Many months passed, years too, but memories that strong are not cleansed with the waters of time. There were no further incidents afterwards. Energies were sapped on both sides, so, any connection just faded and was never spoken of again.

He never really loved her mom, told her so all the time. Not to upset her, just to set the record straight. "Your mother and I were emotionally divorced before you and your siblings even came along" he repeated to her often. "You kids were all I had, and, as you well know, I've messed things up completely with the other two. You're all I've got now". He would say this to her in an attempt to strengthen their bond, all the while studying, reading her reactions, trying to interpret what was taking place in her head. He was always careful in selecting his moves, but this was when his head was sharper, more lucid.

Time for soup. On today's menu is a clear, chicken-broth-based, root vegetable soup, a few scratches of bread on the side. Certainly nothing extravagant, but all hand-made, simple and pure. She will probably help him with the spoon some. His motor controls lack a certain finesse, and, balancing liquids isn't the easiest task of the day. She works with his hands often, and each time it's like visiting her past, although, his hands were much healthier, stronger back then. Sometimes her head would project his current hands into her past and it made her stomach turn. Why? Why was I such a stupid kid?

She knows that he knows she can't stand the sight of blood. More like abhors it. Blood doesn't exist without meaning, without implications, without blame. Blood is the by-product of bad experiences of painful experiences, and she spends inordinate amounts of energy avoiding all contact with blood. She knows it's a bit ridiculous, but she wears chain mail gloves, just like some carvers wear, whenever she is in the kitchen with a knife in hand. Blood makes her heart stop, breathing stop. She just freezes.

A puberty full of rejections, yeah, she is completely aware that she was not the most attractive, nor the most outgoing, but she believed there is someone for everyone. Time was on her side. She fought through the rejections until they morphed her perceptions, and reminded her of those little spots of red on the mattress. A little girl watching a sliver of light shrink into nothingness as the door shut on a silent, black bedroom, burning eyes and the taste of salt.

Back on the porch, the mountains staring down, the hazy skyline blending gray into the mountaintops. The silent deluge of snowflakes falling two miles high. Bundled again, they blow the smoke off their tea. The distant sound of a truck winding its way down a lower road. The metronomic thumping of the rocking chair harassing a loose plank. A spontaneous request for extra sugar from him.

Perhaps the lack of oxygen fired off some memory in reserve. Either way, the little strength he has command over is not signaled. He feels compelled, as if it was his duty, to remain as perfectly still as possible. He certainly doesn't want to go, but he feels that it may be time to pay his debts. He pets her hand gently, knowingly, attempting to fire some type of communication through that frail and papery outer layer. She is firm, but, it doesn't require her to call on all of her faculties as his are only a fraction of what they once were.

He has stopped petting her. She removes the bag, places it in the trashcan and rejoins her cup of tea. She sits, sipping, blowing, and watching the snowfall in the mountains above.


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