All Signs Point to the Hole in the Map

Fiction
Rebecca T. Florisson


Photo Credit: The Guy With The Yellow Bike/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: The Guy With The Yellow Bike/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I stay with you while you sleep. Sit up in bed beside you, pillow propped, reading a page and coming to the end of it and looking at you.

Hours. Your anxiety humming in me.

That you might—that it’s possible. That you will die like you think. That there’d be a me without you. And so every turn of the page I make sure of your breath and oft in-between.

You wake and twist tangled in the sheets to see that I’m watching over.

“I’m here. You were sleeping normal. Nothing strange.”

You start to cry. I close the book, tuck your hair behind your ears, the whispy dead-ends I keep meaning to clean up for you. Tug your hands away from your face. Rub the grey in your eyebrows and the frown set deep. You are red-faced and sticky from respiration and tears, hair curling wet in your neck. Smell of pencil-dust and sweet coffee and pungent, almost masculine sweat.

“They got me. They brought me down with them. I just want to live. Don’t let me die. I’m so scared. So scared.”

“You’re all right, mama,” I say. “We’re all right.”

Your body is healthy. What’s happening with you. Something else.

*

Blue-cloud puddles in the tractor trails. Wheat in every direction. Yellow and awake-looking. Tall up, rolling with the wind, gusting somewhat fierce. Pulsing sough of it. I call you but you are not here. Not so close to the surface. As I guessed. You have strayed much farther into yourself.

Your childhood home stands at the end of the trail. It’s backed up against the hill, under the shade of the oaks, trunks white with some illness. You drew it when you were fifteen, the house burnt down right after, so the drawing is all I knew of it. The cracks you detailed and the grain in the door. On the porch, your mother’s soup-blotted apron and her left eye slightly bigger than her right. More true than a photograph. Your father’s face rubbed out.

I go up the creaking steps to the porch.

I say, “Hi Grandma,” before realising it’s only her cardboard form. She’s one-thirds of an inch thick and stapled to a wooden frame. Pushed into swaying motion by the wind. The front door stands cracked open. This is how I come into you.

My footsteps are muted on the carpeted stairs up to the first floor. I pass through the cramped corridor to your room at the back of the house. The corridor is crowded with replicas of Grandpa, cardboard broad shoulders, workman’s hands and a blurred face. Your door is unlocked and I pull it open towards me. Immediately, things start tumbling out.

Inside is a mess like nothing I ever saw. A hill of trash solid as a wall, coming up as high as my nose. I stand up on tiptoes in the doorway and I see that some ways towards the window, there is a depression in the heap.

I climb up, scrabbling for hold. Whatever I grab comes loose, and the piles shift in such a way as attempting to expel me back out into the corridor. A heavy wooden high seat topples over onto me and numbs my shoulder. Your leftovers try to sink me. I bruise my elbows and my neck tangling with a bicycle and a hula hoop, but I struggle through and in the end the wall collapses and landslides me into the centre of the room, which lies empty of trash.

Instinct. Tuck my chin, round my spine, roll and keep rolling and it’s a good thing too. I’m near flattened by a large round object. It keeps to a confined trajectory in the small open space, going round and round, at the same time languidly spinning around its axis. Pearl shine of the crust. Soap-bubble see-through and dark water inside.

You caught inside this moon.

Child-you I never knew, boyish cut of your white-blonde hair, afloat. Vomiting under water. Entrails heaved up. Gums bleeding pink-orange clouds and you catching your teeth in your palms.

Radioing your father’s voice, pushing through the skin of the moon, muted like hearing talk through the wall, “You’re shit. Die. Die now. Better off. You-less world.” And: “Useless. You.”

Promised myself. Find you. Find some way. Put my hands to the moon of you, eggshell crack or a keyhole. I will. Pull you out all slippery wet, slap breath into you. As you did for me. I promise, I’ll pull you back into this world.

*

I cut fruit in the morning. Kiwis that you like. As many as you want. Spoil you a little. Talking soft and giving you everything on a hint. Sorry for your big head sore from all that dreaming that you do.

“I can do it myself,” you say but you can’t be trusted with a knife. Dad hid the big ones, some place in his tool shed where you never come. One small peeler left in the house for vegetables and cheese and I keep it in an empty DVD box.

You fight us most days. Small things. Try to cheat with the medication. Take no pills but say you do. Dad counts daily and keeps track in a spreadsheet on his computer.

Sudden come-on of rage around mid-morning.You go for Dad’s face with your nails.

What do you see? What’s happening in that head of yours? Some jumble of horrors.

“That’s not him. That’s plastic, it’s plastic.”

Spittle in my eye when I get between. Elbow glancing off my cheek when you try to get past me, reaching over my shoulder, grabbing Dad’s thin dark hair, all the curl gone out of it just recent, dragging him by it. When you get mad your eyes get foamy. Soap eyes wet with rage and frothing up. I pinch your wrist between the bones until your hands go numb and you let go.

I tell Dad to go over to the neighbours for a few hours.

He says, “I would never forgive myself if—“

And I say, “That’s good. That’s good don’t worry,” to his sallow face, saggy with worry. Right skinny in a few weeks time, his flesh and some substance of him beyond flesh eaten since you started straying. “Whatever you think is best, Dad. Maybe the garden? Take a lawn chair, at least. Have a bit of a sit down.” At the same time, I listen with one ear at you tearing through the house.

From the window I see Dad kneeling on a piece of tarp between the red-leaf shrubs, weeding to pass the time.

You hide long in the bathroom and start throwing things from the cupboards when I knock. Thud of a shampoo bottle and the click-tic sound of a hairbrush bouncing off the door.

“Can I just get some goddamn space,” you shout. “You’re smothering me. Do you have to be so noisy. Shut up, I can’t even hear myself think, just shut up.”

Crunch of porcelain being shifted. Outside the door listening in. Know what you’re looking for. The tablets in plastic wrapper you put in the cistern of the toilet. That I found. You come out. Fight. Fight me.

A chapter-long nap in the afternoon and you are crying again. “Don’t let me die.”

“I’m watching over you, mama.”

*

I knock on the surface of your moon. It speeds up its orbit to escape me. Brushes the floorboards, scratch of wood against pearl crust.

Within, you cannot see out. Your teeth keep falling and you keep catching them and still they fall.

I call to you. Kind voice-over of the filth broadcast.

“I’m here, mama. Come on out. Come back with me.”

Does it open only from the inside? How can I take you out of your moon?

“Come back,” I say.

Planet-burst. Water gushing. And you fallen at my feet like spit-out. Not-breathing. The fish-slip of you, tiny-bodied child. Smallest self ripped to smaller. Your father’s radio voice continues to say horrible things. Put my hands over your ears, feel your bumpy skull. Kiss your wet hair, talk into the top of your head where you have an indent like a third ear.

“Listen to my pulse,” I say into the dent. Steady-fast not-lying. “This is me, mama. Here. Me. Hear me instead.”

*

The nights are worst. Windows closed on your insistence, to keep your spirit from escaping while you sleep. My face stuffed up with the smell of you and old tissues.

Can’t wake real you. Known-mama. Only when you want. And you don’t want to wake. You long to go deeper. To some Before. Before me. You go under deeper deepest to escape me. The trapping of motherhood, grown inside like an illness incubated for all of my 24 years.

Recently at breakfast you said to me, “If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t let you get born. We’re all given up. God won’t hear us. He won’t hear you.”

We’ve shared dreams since I lived in you. Through the red cord of blood, ribboning through you and me. That cord now stretched and see-through in places and you going for the sharp things, the hurtful things. Cutting at what’s us. You’d have me untethered.

Your lashes clumped and your breath rancid. Coffee and mint soured. I count in-out, in-out for you. If you wander much farther, I don’t know how to recall you.

Three hours into the night, you start battling the sheets. Mewling. What sits bad in my stomach. You wake but not all of you. You don’t know me. Your eyes crawling up and down, swimming and trembling. Looking at me straight on and snarling from fear. Spit-strands from your teeth to your lip and dripping over your chin. Through the hole of Me, you look into another world. An outside. Outside of me.

“Enough now,” I say, holding your wrists and trying to keep hold. Your flailing knocks the alarm and your mineral stones to the floor. Your nails try to get at my eyes. I only hope Dad can sleep through this on the couch on the other side of the door. He’ll drop. Looking like he might at any time.

“Shhh, quiet down.” We have to protect Dad a little. Who is looking after him?

You get loose and catch my ear, snake-bite fast, yanking hard as wanting it to come off, before I get you again. That’s all right. It’s all right.

“I’m here,” I say. “It’s just me.”

After a while, you calm down and I rub your wrists where I squeezed too tight.

Crying again. On and on.

“Best get up for a bit, mama. Walk around, do some stretching. Shake your arms and legs, shake it off.”

You take a turn of the room while I redo the bed. Fresh sheets. I never washed and ironed so much as these past few weeks. Open the windows for a few minutes. Blessed chill in the breeze.

“No harm done,” I say. “I’ll do a load tomorrow. They promised sun. It’ll be dry in no time at all. Smells so much better when it’s aired outside, right? Better than the tumble dryer. Something so fresh.”

“I don’t know how much more—” you say. “I wrote you a letter. Do you want it now, or—”

“Hold onto it for now, okay.” Wrestle your pillow into a new casing. Realise it’s inside out.

“It’s in my nightstand. So you’ll know where—”

“You’re not going to die.”

“No one can know that. They’ve shown me. What they can do. They’re just toying with me. They’re just laughing while I’m suffering. They took me down into the tunnels and now they can get at me any time. Dumping information in my head. And then I say to myself, this is not mine. I can’t know that. Wham! It goes away. But it doesn’t go away.”

Tuck in the blanket in the corners as you like. Straight lines. Wish I could look into you, the workings of you. Come into you and take out whatever is hurting you.

“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” you say. “They take me down there when I sleep.”

“Let’s take a walk. Get some air into our heads.”

 *

You are wet all through. I rub your short hair dry with my vest. Snot-like gunk gooping out your ears, falling to your shoulders.

“Can you still hear him?” I ask. Only thing I hear is the wind under the eaves of the house and the slop-slop of the last water gushing from the cracked moon.

Child-you shrugs. Looks at me steady on.

“Well?” I prompt.

“Always,” you say.

I carry you on my back to the door. Knobbly-kneed and trembly thing you are. The trash less of a wall now and more like hills set loose. I slip through puddles of dark water. Grip you tight afraid to drop. Crack of the spine of a book underfoot, the wheezing sound of a dog toy flattened and regaining breath.

The house seems more dangerous now that I’m bigger than you. You cling like a monkey to my back, quiet at first. Suck on your teeth, check they’re still in your head.

We squeeze between the cardboard Grandpas through the corridor.

“Say something,” I say.

When you start your gabbing there’s no end to it. Putting forth things too sophisticated for your seven years. About motherhood. How you had your own name before you became ‘mama’.

I tune you out. Focus on getting to the end of the corridor. Everything uphill-feeling. Calves burning. Bumping shoulders with cardboard Grandpa, send him rocking backwards and then forward towards us as aiming to strike back. We get to the top of the stairs and it’s a slippy way down, carpet come loose from the wet we’ve tracked. Skittering. Feeling weak. Preyed-upon.

Bluish mist between the walls like smoke in a barroom but colder. The front door is stuck. The handle turns but it won’t open.

“I can walk,” you say. “Put me down.”

I put you down. Red slippers. Skinny in flaring jeans and a striped shirt. Your hair dried and curling in your neck where it was wet. Tanned and every inch of you storing stubbornness. Bracing yourself for something. Making ready to lash out any time.

Getting back, I came prepared. Seeing you up close 24 years and I know. The things I know about you.

We start down the hall, go into the dining room. There, hills of trash, plastic recycling, clothing, and glass bottles. The detritus of you. Food-rot smell constant, something almost sweet in the air. Insist you hold my hand that of course you don’t want. A path meanders through and around the piles, runs in a circle around the large dining table and branches off into three more paths. No windows. Half-dark and the floor warm as heated by the sun.

You clamber up on the table. With your feet pushing bottles and books to the floor.

“I don’t know,” you say, turning. Turning again, haltingly. Elbows close to your sides.

“Do you have some instinct? Of home?”

“I don’t like this game,” you say. Look at me, accusing.

“Don’t worry, I know how to get back,” I say. “Do you remember last year? You stuffed a chicken. Yelled at us when we didn’t help. We were confused at the fuss. Turns out you thought it was Dad’s birthday but that was next week. We thought you’d explode, but you laughed and Dad ate so much he couldn’t sleep.”

Your eyes go wide. Some ways down the path to the right, deep covered in a heap of glass, a light comes on.

Signposting our return.

Lights gone dark in you, I’ll switch them on.

You’re quicker than me. Jump in the pile and dig for the light. I worry you’ll cut yourself, or slip, bottles rolling and tic-tic tingle resounding.

You dig it out. Small bottle, brown as for medicine. Unlabelled and the light inside stronger than I’d thought now it’s been uncovered. But flickering. Flash glare strong enough to hurt all the way to the back of the skull when looked at head on. You wipe the table top with your palm and put the small bottle down. Breathing fast. Put your hands into fists and press your wrists to your temples. Like you do when you despair.

“We’ve got some ways to go. Let’s get on,” I say, start back towards the hall. Uneasy. Near-trip a bottle underfoot. You follow a little ways behind me. Slip-slap of your red plastic slippers.

“You tired? I can carry you for a while, if you want.”

You don’t want. Too proud for carrying.

*

Your hair looks lovely today. Nicely done up with the glittery-clips I wore as a girl. That’s a thing you’re doing now. Your grey-blonde hair lights up in the early light. Woolen vest and furry boots. Small waist. Taller than me by a head and more beautiful. Big brown eyes and something striking about you. Cleverer than most anybody I know.

Your eyes are clear with a false bit of shine. You float in and out. Your sweet self brain. Bruised from all that inflicting. Some other place more real to you than the blue hills around us, smokey with dew. The natter of travelling geese over our heads and your hand cold in the crook of my elbow. Humming psalms under your breath, the first few lines of one and then you start in on another. Been a long time since you sang them in church but now you want to return to God.

Do I love you? Impossibly much. Sometimes not at all.

 

In the afternoon, I take a shower. Mix conditioner and shampoo together to get done as quick as able and by the time I come out you’ve sneaked off. Taken the car. Now Dad is the one of us who stays calm.

“I’ll bring her back,” he says. “Stay near the phone. How about you get started on the potatoes. Take your mind off.” Touches my shoulder most kind, never squeezing, hands too strong for measure.

Dad has read the letters you wrote. He borrows the neighbour’s car and the lake is the first place he looks.

You’re a strong swimmer and it’s a calm day and the lake is shallow. Pond, more-like. Risk of catching cold more than anything else. My fear is too deep to grasp the lack of risk. It’s the feel of the Maybe. That you want.

I peel more potatoes than we can eat. I feed the dog. Vacuum the living room and iron Dad’s shirts for work that he hasn’t worn in weeks now. Finally, the grind of wheels on the drive. I fill the kettle and break some matches before one lights.You come in wrapped in Dad’s coat and a plaid blanket.

Dad pulls out a chair and puts you at the kitchen table. He’s quiet, half an eye on me, looking like he’s making ready to jump between.

“Don’t mind about me,” you say, thick-eyed from all the weeping. I slam down the tea pot on the counter with such violence the lid comes off. A gush of hot water down the sides and my hands scalded. I’m wrecked on no sleep, thin-skinned and trembly with anxiety transferred just being near you.

I cross my arms over my chest, hands in my pits to halt the shakes. You and Dad at the table. You’re looking at your hands.

“If you do that again, I’ll leave,” I say. Wanting to shock. Shock-hurt. “I’ve an apartment and a life to get back to. You don’t— You shouldn’t—”

Your cheekbones splotchy and puffed. Dad nodding and locking eyes with his tea, as if taking full blame.

“I’ll leave. I will,” I say again.

No, I think. That was my chance.

*

“I had a purple dress and everybody at school thought I looked like a right fool in leggings instead of jeans. So I came home all upset and you took me to the video store and we got a stack of scary films for sixteen and older although I was twelve. We watched them back to back through the night, you and me, Dad couldn’t sit out all the gore. Come morn, nothing was scary anymore.”

In the kitchen, in the grey threads of a mop leaned up against the side of the fridge, little lights come on. Shimmery little things like Christmas lights, glinting like getting winked at.

Not once do I look behind me. Your pitter-patter reassurance enough, and your breathing and the way you snort when items tumble from the piles onto our path. Too raw, the rooms back there, pains looking at. Looking more than looking, a taking-inside.

Your mother’s pantry underneath the stairs and you’re dragging your feet. Feeling a story come on and wanting none. You’d close your ears to me if you could. As you wanted with the other voice.

Thankfully here, a light is already on. Under the shelves with preservatives and cleaning products, there’s a dollhouse with red-brick painting and warm fire from the windows. The first home you had with Dad. Again you are quicker. Your small hands locating directly the click mechanism under the eaves of the roof. The facade opens outwards and inside lies a baby-doll, eyes closed in sleep. Three candles burning at its feet.

You lift the bundle out, sit down cross-legged and turn the baby over on your knee, unclasp the onesie at the neck. Open it partways. You hold up the doll for me to see the bruise-like birthing mark on the right shoulder. Mine.

“You were a sweet thing,” you say, nostalgia looking off on your young face. “Everybody was at your crib, cooing at your tiny nose. You were born too early, so tiny I didn’t dare hold you. Didn’t hold you for a long time. The thought of it made my skin crawl. Not that I might hurt you with squeezing, but that you needed me.”

Some place inside, you have given over to me already. Lit up always. And I didn’t know. That I took place in you. Such hope. Suddenly I’ve such hope.

And so I do, finally, look back.

Startled to see the back of us lies quiet. Darkness closing in, closer.

“Where did we just—? We came that side and—” What was kindled in those heaps is no longer lit. Reeling. In a trot to the hall and back to the pantry, tripping over your legs stretched out.

You’re still sitting there. You lick your fingers and press out the first of the three candles in the doll house and the two after that. Calmly, hopelessly during our walkabout, you have extinguished the lights.

You do up the garment on the doll and put her back in the house.

“Well then, that’s that,” you say, rubbing your palms on your flaring trousers. I make a grab for you but the skin of your arms is slippery as when you tumbled from the soap-bubble moon. As were the moon growing back around you.

“Just come with me,” I say. “Stick close to me and we’ll find a way out. I’m not lost. I can get us out.”

“You go on without me,” you say. You pull a strange face like something’s stuck in your mouth and you spit into your hand. A bloody tooth. Looking at me, smiling slight with your mouth closed. “You can’t keep me safe. You can’t keep me.”

*

During the night a dry freeze comes on strong enough to make the windows shiver. They re-settle in their frames with cracking and squeeing.

You want to go away. To the hospital where our neighbour went after a breakdown from work. Dad takes it hardest. You’re a faraway woman, reappearing now strong when you hold his hand, decide for yourself what’s best. Least danger of damage. Wandering off. Going. Which roads will you take on your return? Will you find us again in this life?

“How long?” Dad asks. Winter is a long season to wait, without a promise of return.

“Let’s just see,” you say. Smiling closed-mouthed as child-you did without teeth. Plain as day. Were you always this brave?

I press a kiss to the spot where your cheek meets chilled ear, where you smell of days-old perfume, garlic and Italian herbs of last night’s pasta and the sour-stressed scent of coffee and no rest. The kind of kiss you give to people who are part of you.

pencilSince graduating uni a few years ago, Rebecca has worked a job as an animal caretaker in Scotland, done wedding photography in India and chopped wood on a farm in France. She’s now returned to the Northern part of Europe, which has a bit of a freeze going on at the moment. She cycles to work every day, snow or no snow, and daydreams that she passes the office and keeps on cycling. Email: rebecca.florisson[at]gmail.com

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