Mother always in the corner of my eye. This is what she is now, something I can almost see.
She wasn’t always like this. It began with black dresses and veils where her eyes used to be. Progressed to her walking with the aid of walls. As if gravity drew her to the Earth’s core more meaningfully.
Soon, the only sign she’s still around is the peeling of the faded wallpaper. Or scuffs in the wood paneling in the hall. Or that rare suggestion of once was just in my periphery.
Until one afternoon when Jake and I play Uno at the kitchen table. Jelly donuts, our lunch, leaving powdery fingerprints on the cards. And I look up from my hand and she’s opposite me. It’s been so long since we’ve seen her she feels like a memory.
She whispers to follow, her finger a hook luring us down the long hall to our living room. She weighs down our shoulders until we’re kneeling skinny knees to hardwood in front of the fire. Then, she force-links our fingers into prayer.
Jake cries why? His chubby cheeks burnt with tears. Mom laboring her finger to point to an empty rocking chair in the corner of the room. The absence there making Jake cry even more. So much, he somehow goes full circle, stumbles on stunned serenity.
From that moment on, we understand we must mourn, Jake and me.
Each evening, he carries a tea light down to the stream. Makes the wick stand at attention. Lights it with matches from mother’s incense shelf. Saying child’s words about loss before he lets it dawdle downstream.
Me, I carry tokens for people. For those already lost, but also for a few still with us, just in case. A Swiss-army knife missing the toothpick for Pop Pop. The reverse Uno card for Jakey. And mother, I choose to remember as the one before, so I carry honeysuckle in my pocket. I drink of their sweet with eyes closed, letting the sun warm my face, pretending that warmth comes from her breath as she kisses my cheek.
Most nights, Jake and I huddle on the living room floor and cry until we’re empty enough for sleep. Sometimes, I awake to him mourning unconsciously. Whispering languorous prayers, his shut eyes darting around like trapped things.
Then one morning, it happens. Pop Pop a stone in bed. We hear mother’s voice from shadows saying this is all any of us can hope for — to die in dream. And I suppose it’s easier for us to lay him to rest than most. We’ve been readying ourselves for this very thing. Already dressed in black. Practicing our rituals. All we need to do is put him in the dirt. And on that day, I feel ordinary again because there’s community in our misery.
But neighbors soon pass one by one, and the gossip unrolls across town like a spool of poison yarn. People call us harbingers of death. Some even outright accuse us, turning their knobbly fingers into exclamation points to punctuate their claim that our family is the cause. A few even threaten our lives. Stroke shiny weapons like pets as they make horrible promises about what they’ll do to Jake and me. But before they can act on these promises, their bodies become spilled juice over their breakfast. Or weigh against shouting horns inside cars that never make it out of the driveways of their homes, the kind of homes where the curtains are always gaping.
In no time, my pockets are so stuffed with tokens, walking becomes a chore — tiny baby dolls with winky eyes, pages plucked from diaries, baseball cards, old-timey keys, locks of shiny hair tied with ribbon. At first, it’s not easy to reduce people to single objects small enough to bear. But like with most skills, I get better at it with time and practice.
Eventually, it’s just Jake and me. One night, I tickle his ribs. Get him all riled up by saying that soon we too will close our eyes forever. And he whines because he’s too young to understand the word forever, it making his whole body noodly as he repeats it back to me. Because forever is not a donut. Or a reverse Uno card. Or a cool stream where he can submarine his small hands. And if I’m honest, the more I think about it, the less it means to me. But I tell him to try it anyway, to give eternity a go before he decides it must be a terrible thing, and he locks his eyes, smiling from inside his homemade death, then says, I guess it’s not as dark as I thought it would be.