We sat together on the living room floor, waiting for Helen. I crowded Ruth, but she continued to rotate in place, matching the roll of her wild eyes and the spin of her playthings overhead—three severed fan blades, our poor cracked television, and a kewpie doll with a busted wing. I worked on perfecting our silence, and I still hoped that concentrating together could be its own sort of communion, though my daughter’s thoughts, her work, were all her own.
She jumbled our world with a whim and choreographed the gymnastics of our furniture. With a steady gaze she spun out invisible threads to pin into these objects, lashing them through the air in sharp dives and jumps or simply letting them carry on in a slow spin, as if she were leading a June bug on a string. I tried not to cringe when the television whisked too near the windows or when the fan blades spun so close to my scalp that they could have trimmed my sparse hair. We tried, in our own ways, to appreciate the waltzing furnishings, and we did not mention Helen or what we expected.
Ruth had to fill more time than we might have hoped. She pulled the last blade from the fan, though she may not have meant to send the remaining mechanism churning against this last dismemberment. Her hold was cracking the ceramic mold of the kewpie, and it began to dust us with peach-colored flakes. She bit down into her lip as she tried to still the crumbling doll’s fall. The sweat was beading up on her forehead. I wanted to lay heavy hands on her shoulder and drag her down out of her orbit, but I didn’t dare ruin her sequence. I did not want to turn her strained thoughts on me.
The television was the first to fall, and the rest came soon after. I did not say, Tomorrow, she’ll come tomorrow. If I could have hoped for anything more specific maybe it would have helped her. But I could not reassure her as she hurled the television away from her and drove the blades through the wreckage as it burst into a metallic bloom against the wall. She burrowed her face into the carpet as the last remains of the kewpie crumbled down and into her hair. I’d told her once that it was a keepsake of her mother’s.
“I could be by the house,” she said. “Would you be upset?”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, please come.” I heard a rushed exhale on her end before the line died. Okay, she said, or Thanks, or Soon. I dropped the phone back into its cradle before pulling it up again and calling Ruth out of school.
The house had changed little since Helen left us, but it had developed enough from its lowest point. In those days, there was only a mattress, a bare television stand, and several drawers out of a dresser. Over the years of Helen’s absence, I put a TV on the stand and a frame under the mattress. I added a love-seat, installed a fan, then an AC unit. I gathered knick-knacks. I am a collector by necessity, a man who has had to believe in gradual homemaking.
If Helen was actually going to see our home, I wanted to show that progress had been made without her. I myself was not such a clear indication, and I worried that she would hardly notice Ruth, who had grown like a pretty weed in the compost. Helen would not value it as I did.
“When is she coming?” Ruth asked as I dug a scrub-brush, a greenish cleaning agent, and the last roll of paper towels out from beneath the kitchen sink.
“She didn’t say, exactly,” I said, “but it should be late today.”
“How long will she stay?” Ruth asked. “Will I need to stay out of school tomorrow?”
“We’ll see tomorrow,” I said. “Let’s just clean up for right now, to start off with, okay?”
The two windows in the living room had been open for three days since the AC unit finally gave in. Spring had given way to summer, and we still were not sure how we would keep the house aired during a strong rain. The fan was no match for June. Only one window had its screen intact. It had sprinkled the night before, and I tried to shutter up the house, but Ruth and I were practically choked on the hothouse air, so I opened the windows and laid out layers of paper towels along the sills. We now worked first to sop up the wet paper puddles, and I was beginning to realize how little I knew about mold or how to combat it.
“Why is she coming to visit today,” Ruth asked, “or tomorrow?” She scooped up some of the mash and held it up to me with both hands.
“Your mother hasn’t visited us in a long time,” I said and took the mash from her. “She must really miss us now.”
“It took a long time,” Ruth called after me as I carried the mash to the trashcan. “But how come she decided to come today? Or tomorrow?”
“Today must have been the day she missed us too much.”
“I wish she had given us more time to get ready.”
“Why?” I asked. The mash struck the bare bottom of the can.
“Maybe so I could work up getting excited for her.”
“Aren’t you excited to see her?”
“I’m nervous, I guess.”
“You want to see her,” I said. “The feeling’s just under all those nerves.”
She didn’t answer, and I couldn’t see her face, but it wouldn’t have done me any good. Recently, her gestures had begun to convey half a dozen contrary thoughts. Her smiles had unspoken questions budding up beneath them. I tried to chalk it up to the specter of puberty, but that didn’t make communication any easier.
“Is that her?” Ruth said finally.
I rushed back into the living room, but I saw no sign of a visitor from the windows. And Ruth stood there with her head cocked so far that her left ear brushed her shoulder.
“Do you hear that? That whistle?” she said.
I paused and tried to match her tilt, but I heard nothing besides the dead AC guttering outside, perhaps a breeze through the window over that.
“It’s just our old unit settling,” I said.
She shook her head, trying to shake the sound like water out of her ears, or maybe she was just disagreeing. Then she just gave this clipped whimper and said, “I can’t get the sun out of my eyes,” and I felt her skull strike the coffee table.
I dived for her. I crammed paper towels against her forehead to sop up the sweat and blood. I kept myself relatively calm, and I asked her only twice if she was having a fit, if she knew what was happening. I cradled the back of her head and continued to clean her brow until she blinked her way out of it and said, “Hi, Dad, hi, just a second.”
I laid her down and went back to the kitchen just long enough to toss some ice cubes into a ziploc bag. I had one paper towel left to buffer her skin against the cold. Her smile was instant when I set it on the rising knot.
“What happened?” she said. “I like that.”
I balanced the bag on her forehead and eventually let it droop over her.
“You fell down,” I said. “You must have gotten worked up, and you fell down.”
“I got worked up…”
“And you fell down,” I said.
“If you say so,” she said. But her face began to quiver, and it made me nauseous, so focused my attention on a droplet of cold water that seeped out of the bag and down her forehead.
“You said you heard something,” I told her.
“It was a high noise, and I thought it must be Mom,” she said, and the droplet halted on the narrow bridge of her nose. “Am I excited to see her?” It rose up as a perfect little sphere, and it swayed up and down and up again, fixing itself into a nodding motion that mesmerized me. I reached down, unsure whether to grasp the bobbing sphere or calm Ruth, but my hand stopped an inch from her skin, and my fingers rippled upon a thickening wave of pressure in that inch between us. I could not break the surface. I was afraid to press.
“What do we do when she gets here?” Ruth asked, and the dancing little sphere shot up towards my own face and burst between my eyes.
We waited, and I didn’t speak or press my hand upon her, and the ice melted down her face into thin tendrils that lifted around her eyes and swayed for brief seconds before collapsing down her cheeks. I did not move until the ice had become a halo of soaked carpet around her and Helen had not come. The buffer of pressure around Ruth had dissolved, so I lifted her to the couch and spoke at her and poked at her to draw out some hums and ohs, so that she would stay with me rather than sink into whatever buried singularity she had created deep in her head.
“Hello,” I said. “Hey, are you still there?”
“Hi,” she said. “Here.”
Our old, corded phone rang once, but the caller disconnected when I picked up from our side.
She seemed well enough, if a bit addled, the next morning. She had had a long night’s sleep after her first collapse, but I interrupted her rest every couple of hours to check for a concussion. We were both drained, so I suggested that she stay home from school.
“Can you stay, too?” she asked. “Can we camp out in the living room?”
I called in immediately.
I couldn’t recall her ever wanting to miss school before. The local elementary was a surprisingly well-funded and stimulating place, and it provided her with escapes beyond my meager offerings. She was actually occupied there, perhaps not through a social life, but at least by the slew of problems to be solved, the sentences, paragraphs, and ideas to dissect and reassemble, all in a solitary bubble of competence. I collected years of good reports from teachers, though some worried about shyness. Still, they couldn’t claim she was autistic on any point of the spectrum. She appeared capable of holding her own along the fringes of all her social obligations. And she always seemed so happy with her solutions and diagrams.
Fourth grade was the best year. That was when she dived headlong into crafting. The harmless activity allowed her, for the first time, to express a love for the intricate melding of the like and unlike. She had stints in beading, dabbled in layered acrylic paints, adored yarn-work, but the cross-stitch became her favorite.
She had caught the bug from a Miss Mitchell, whom Ruth loved and who doted on Ruth for almost every hour that I could not, so I idolized the woman as well. She sent Ruth home one day with a specially made wicker basket that held multi-colored spools of thread, as well as frames, designing guides, and half-finished samples that she sent along after. Ruth studied the samples but rarely followed their example. The materials were enough to set her to work, and she churned out rough but inspired portraits of little red houses in a row; families of roosters, hens, and their little chicks; and one display of stick men and women grasping at a long rope in a game of tug-of-war, though the more I looked at this particular piece, the more the figures drifted together, not pulling away but clinging as the line looped up and beyond the borders behind them into an over-large circle unable to connect. Whenever Ruth finished a portrait, she ordered me to run my hands along the finished product, to feel the points where the brightly colored figures pushed out from the beige frame.
Miss Mitchell even set up a Saturday morning trip to Hobby Lobby. It seemed at first like an outreach mission for motherless Ruth, and I was ready to serve as Miss Mitchell’s guide. I started saving for Ruth’s spree, so when we were ready I told the young teacher to save her own money and I told the younger girl to go nuts. She got to push the buggy, and we trotted at her heels. We shoveled supplies into the cart: threads, beads, calligraphic pens, and especially the things that she lingered over but tried to resist. Whenever she snatched an item from the shelf we said, “Just think what you could do with that!”
Then Miss Mitchell began to drift back from Ruth and closer to me. She reached out to test bundles of yarn as soon as I did, and I felt her thumb graze mine. The pad of her thumb was warm, and left a few droplets of sweat along my own. She did not move the thumb, and I lingered as well, recalling Helen’s heat pumping from her hands to mine back before Ruth was born when we clutched at each other when we drew near.
I pulled my hand away from the bundle and looked at Miss Mitchell only peripherally. There was want in them, but it was a stranger’s desire, which I could not easily read, while her eyes locked on me, waiting for me to feel the gaze tickling the side of my face.
At the checkout, I eventually blurted, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I just can’t see you.” And Miss Mitchell’s stare finally fell. I was sorry to embarrass Ruth. Doubly sorry that I had lost a common language between myself and strangers.
But Miss Mitchell was a grade behind now, and Ruth and I were at home. This being a rare day off together, I brought out the sewing kit and asked Ruth if she had any ideas for a new project. She thought it over while she dug through the kit, and after some time she said: “I don’t know. What did Mom look like?”
Helen? Long hair, nearly red, and unkempt only at the ends. Her eyes were soft, green, and rarely focused.
“She had a bright face and she had red hair,” I said. “But it’s been a long time. She could have changed a lot.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Not everyone tries to stay as simple as Dad does.”
Ruth looked me over, squinting, and I felt her stare like fingers testing my muscles, prying into my jaw to wiggle teeth. “Would you like to be sewn in the picture with her?”
“Maybe it would be better if all three of us were together. Could you do that?”
Ruth thought it over, and then shook her head. “Maybe later. Let me try one first. To see what she looks like.”
“I’m sure she’ll be flattered when she sees it,” I said.
Ruth set to work, but after stringing the thread through the frame in three loops, she paused. She stared at the needle for several minutes until it drifted from her fingers. It moved as her eyes moved, with red thread trailing under it, like a dancing cobra.
“This is weird,” she said, and when she turned to me the needle fell. “Is this wrong?”
“It’s weird, but I don’t see how it could be wrong,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay right now,” she said. She turned back to the needle. It rose just high enough to stab back through the frame and rise up and out with a slow wobble.
“What’s it like?” I asked.
“It’s weird,” she said. “Weird like I’m in things.”
On its second loop, the needle sprung out of the frame with more force, nearly snapping from the thread. “I feel like I just popped out of the picture. But I also feel like I’m sitting down here by you.”
“Just be careful,” I said. “You can do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt yourself.”
“I won’t,” she said.
Her pull on the thread grew more controlled. The needle’s progress fell into a rhythm, faster than Ruth’s hand-sewing. I watched it all, until she stopped on a finished face—an oval with long red hair that draped down in the shape of a bell. It was not as detailed as Ruth’s normal work, even the first outlines, but this was, of course, the first trial of a new method. It wasn’t even weird, just different.
“It’s different,” I said.
“I wouldn’t know if she looked different,” she said. She fixated on the red outline of Helen until the red lines began the ripple and rise out of the frame, pulling up into long coils of thread and dissolving the image. “But I’m going to find out.”
Helen did not come that day, either. We busied ourselves with Ruth’s craft kit instead of speculating, and Ruth fiddled with beads, felt, pens, yarn, and more thread as she had experimented with the red thread and the droplet of water. When the second day ended, I told her that, if she wanted, we could sit out again and see what happened.
“Nothing is going to happen,” she said.
“A lot can happen in a day,” I said.
She struggled for a moment, and finally just said, “Sorry.”
I told her that there was no need, that I was happy as long as she was happy. I asked her if she was happy, and the fan suddenly kicked on. A picture of static blipped onto the television but it quickly faded back to black.
“I don’t know Mom,” she said. “I don’t know her like I know you, and she’s supposed to be the same.”
“You’ll be meeting her late,” I said. “But you’ll still get to know her.”
“I’m going to know her,” she said.
“I would like that,” I said.
“But she has to come.”
On the third day we did not broach the subject again, and she grew tired of her crafts, so she turned her attention to household objects, ending specifically with the television, the fan blades, and the kewpie doll. The television’s collapse had upset her, but she was getting better until the phone rang. Then she upended the coffee table. She didn’t mean to shatter glass, but the left window was out when I made it to the kitchen to take the call, and I heard Helen. “How are you?” she said, and I was stoppered, caught up in drawing all I could of Helen through the little wire connecting us, and pulled back to Ruth, who yelped as she tried to piece the glass shards back into her old window. She began to shriek when the shards crumbled to lesser particles under the weight of her demands.
“We are still waiting for you,” I said. “How long are we going to have to wait?” And I heard the hiss of her indecision whistle through her teeth and a well-gnawed thumbnail. “We can still wait today,” I said.
“I’m sorry about this,” she said. “It’s harder than I thought to actually go back there.”
“Do you mean it’s hard for you to see Ruth,” I said amidst a jingle of glass. Hundreds of slivers swirled in circles around Ruth, striking each other in their purposeless motion. She may have heard me say her name. A moan was slowly welling out of her. Helen whistled across the line, trying to formulate her explanation.
“I want to see you,” she said.
“We want to see you, too.”
I could hear the flick of the thumbnail across her teeth as she wrenched it away. I could almost sense a crack, a thin line of blood running from the groove off the cuticle.
“Listen,” she said. An intake of breath. It could have been my own lips sucking the thin cut near the nail. I pulled away from the image, and her voice receded as well.
“I keep getting these terrible feelings,” she said, “like I’m always being watched or followed. Can I just see you for a minute.”
“I can’t leave right now,” I said. Ruth was still working with the glass, pulling it all into a ball before her. She reached out, actually pressing her hands against the orb to make it whole again, and my palms began to itch, and I realized Helen had been talking, was still talking, and I wasn’t taking in a word. I nestled the receiver between my ear and shoulder and ran to Ruth. The phone dragged after, barely holding to the jack.
“I’m sorry,” I told Helen as I bent down over Ruth. The barrier was there again, but I embraced the air between us and held my hands parallel to hers. She was clutching the glass sphere, hands bleeding freely, and I pushed against the tension between us, my palms stinging with her own. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.”
“Will you just get out and see me?” Helen asked.
“See me first,” I said as I heaved forward and felt the pressure buckle between me and Ruth. “Meet me here.” Ruth dropped her ball and fell back into me. She did not cry, did not even wipe the blood from her hands, but she sank fully into my arms while Helen listened across the line.
“Still there?” I said. Ruth stirred against my chest, and I felt her grow active again with a ripple of heat in the air and the static that crawled down my spine. We were suddenly a single blotch of yearning. We needed desperately to let it all loose and surge down the thin connection to this stranger who we needed to open to us.
Helen yelped and cut the connection, and the first thrum of the dial tone struck my brain like a mallet on a gong. I may have cried out as well when I fell away from Ruth. The last thing I saw was actual stars dancing around me, the blazing and dying remnants of Ruth’s psychic threads loosed and bursting in the void.
Helen had pushed Ruth out into the world, and she had clung to the girl for a short time after. I bought them a rocking chair with the money I’d saved for better furniture, back in the days of the mattress, the TV stand, and the drawers. And there was, come to think of it, the coffee table, too. I sat on that when I watched Helen rock with her baby. I leaned slightly in towards them, trying not to break the quieting spell Helen cast as she leaned directly into the baby to touch noses. They would stare into one another, searching and blinking in turns.
I dragged our mattress into the room and began a daily cycle. I left to work and came back by nightfall to sit and watch them from my table, and then I rolled off onto the mattress so tired that I could never tell whether Helen joined or not. It seemed to go on like this for years, but I later gathered that it was only four calendar days after Ruth’s birth when Helen rose from her chair, left the child in my arms, and locked herself in our emptied bedroom. I tried to carry Ruth back to her. I kicked weakly at the door. I buried my face into the small space between door and carpet and called to her, but I only heard painful huffs of un-lubricated sobbing.
Eventually I left the door and sat in the rocker with Ruth. I looked in her for whatever had sent Helen over the brink, whatever could send me past that barrier towards her. Ruth burbled when our noses touched, and I only then realized how silent the child had been. She had not once cried out her demands.
And I realized I had never touched her, never spoken to her. So I reached out my finger and tapped the side of my nose, and then hers, and there didn’t seem to be a sliver of space between the tips of our connected faces. Then I understood why she hadn’t cried out. I felt a ripple of thought spark between our skins and down every nerve I could feel and some I had never felt. Hello, she said. Hello, who are you? It felt like missing a step in a dream and finding myself not only on sure footing but safely at rest.
After Helen’s call, I found myself on the other side of the room. I was in a haze when I came to, and I could not tell how long I had been out, but it was clear that Ruth had fundamentally changed our surroundings. The electrical outlets whistled and spat fire, and all the appliances in the house whirred in tune. She filled the room with bursts of superheated air that rippled the air with their warmth and erupted in no set pattern. She was still by the broken window along with her ball of glass and the phone, which I had left by her side. I went in after her. Heat-bubbles burst all around me, leaving long pink scorches across my exposed skin and singes against my clothes.
She had been working on the telephone. I saw its frame pried apart, its wires unwound and spooled loosely around her. As I drew nearer, I could not trace the wires’ beginnings or ends. She’d split them into several strands—some were knotted up and lost in the general tangle, others burrowed into the carpet, digging for a secure hold, but she urged them out around her. Waves of the lines snaked through the carpet. I did my best to evade them, but with every other motion I landed on a line with a knee or elbow, and the livewire would stop short with a clipped shock through my system. Stop it! and Careful! sang through my nerves.
These same nerves screamed as I tossed the coils aside to gather Ruth in my arms. She fell back into me without effort, and I steeled myself for another out-of-body experience. Instead, I only felt her withdraw. She focused her attention on the inside of her right wrist, which she rubbed and whispered to. I grabbed the arm, and then felt the shock I had expected or something like it, because I thought I heard Helen’s voice, preserved and looped through a recording: “You have reached Helen— You have reached Helen—” swelling and popping before the message could complete itself.
Ruth’s arm felt swollen as I plied it. I rolled back the sleeve, and I saw the thread of one long, red wire running up along the inner arm. Copper twines stuck out of the main cord and latched onto the skin.
“Ruth,” I said (“You have reached Helen—”). “Ruth,” I said, “you’re hurting yourself,” and I felt my words dissolve in the space between us. I could see the sound travel and the syllables burst along with the heat-bubbles and Helen’s recording in the void.
Then I realized she had not noticed me there, not until my last words broke down. Then she turned her eyes toward me. They were a blue and white blur within the sockets, shaking and yet still taking me in. She drew up the other end of her red line from the coil of cords, and when she presented the split-ended mess of the calling line she pushed it up to my mouth. I tasted it and I tasted all the blood and spit and tooth and bone inside me, and they were not parts of me but a voice echoing out of me—“Hello, who are you?” and “Get out and see me.” and “Meet me here.”—and I didn’t care about reaching Helen, because we could plunge our needy hands into her and ourselves and clutch the knot that was our mingled blood, and we would be not heard but felt.
|No. 12 - Fall 2013
Copyright 2017 Waccamaw. All reprint rights reserved by authors.