Only An Empty Dress
by Uvi Poznansky
it is, that sound again. And again—just like last night—it is only a
whisper. No, not now, mom... Just a
little bit longer. If I open my eyes, if I open them now, for sure I
Lighter and faster than anything here I come, traveling through the air, hovering as if there is no gravity.
toy-sized houses below me are floating away; so are the trees. Here and
there they catch a ray of light, then dim away. After a while they fall
back into the stream of things. From time to time I can see my shadow:
There it is, fluttering dreamily over the land, like a fish wiggling
across a vast, sandy bottom, spreading as I leap over the valleys,
shrinking as I drift down toward the hilltops. From here I can almost
see, see over the summit, even over the highest, sharpest rocks. They
lick my toe and in a flash I kick, I rise over them until—|
I sit up in my bed with a start. The blanket has fallen off and there is my foot, bandaged. Some boys are clumsy; some boys fall from trees, they get all bruised up and never learn a lesson, is what grandma says. Everyone knows who she is talking about. She is right, too. I hate learning lessons. I hope I never will.
I try to pull back the blanket and suddenly, here is that sound again—only clearer this time. How can I describe it? It is faint, like a moan, going up, down and then up again. Just listening to it sets my nerves on edge. Can you make any sense of it?
I remember asking mom about it. I said, You feeling all right? And she said, Yes dear, why? And I said, I heard you at night. And she paused for just a second but then went on combing her hair. And I said, So? What happened, mom? Were you hurt? And she waved her hand, the way she does to dismiss what I say, because to her it seems to make no sense. Then she smiled at me from the mirror.
But I pressed on saying, Well? And immediately noticed the little pleat forming between her eyebrows, which means she is doing the grown-up thing, trying to think of something to say in order not to say a thing. After which she said, Oh that! I guess I was having a nightmare. Sometimes, she added, I talk in my sleep. And I came close, right behind her, and gave her a hug, and said, So, if it happens again—then what? To which she shrugged. I looked up at her, at her reflection really, because that was where I could find her eyes, and I said, Should I come in, then? Should I wake you up? Oh no, she answered, blushing a little. Dad can do that.
So now, shivering a bit, I find myself cuddling the pillow, swaying back and forth, hypnotized by that moan and becoming angry, very angry with dad. How can he go on sleeping? It should not be that difficult to touch her, to have her snap out of that Oh, Oh, Oh mumble—I mean, really! If he did what he is supposed to do, I would not have to pop open my eyes, smack in the middle of my dream, right at the moment when I am at the top of the world, and wonder how to take care of things.
There is nothing I wouldn’t do for mom, I mean it! Waking her from a nightmare is the least I can do. I will wake her—and no one else but her. So I slip off my bed. The floor is bare; it has a cold, stony touch. What you call darkness is really not all that dark: Faint moonlight seeps through the blinds, puddles over the sheets, spills all over the folds, and then crawls, with some hesitation perhaps, across the room. I find the door handle and lean into it. I know exactly how much pressure to apply, especially around the rusty spot, so that—without a screech—it swings open.
Once outside my bedroom I make an effort to avoid limping, for fear of making a sound; I slide across the hall, past the empty aquarium which grandma bought me. Coming dimly into view, as I enter the corridor, are the closed doors ahead of me. I remind myself to sidestep the two squeaky floor tiles: One lies in wait right there, next to the toilet, the other—next to grandma’s room. I don’t want to wake her. She always has some boring old lesson to teach me.
So I move slowly, carefully, around those floor tiles, halting to listen after each step, one foot on tiptoe, the other—dragging along. You think this is easy for a boy, a tense, jumpy ten-years old boy? It’s not; but I cannot go back. At last I am closing in on my target: The door at the end of the corridor. The handle is within my reach when, once again—
Oh, says my mom from within. Her voice rings so sweet, so melodious—each Oh coming to a higher peak than the last one—that all of a sudden, I am in awe. I step back, trying to make up my mind: Is this a nightmare she is having—or perhaps something different? Should I rush in to save her—or perhaps not? And as I stand there, utterly in confusion, I hear, as clear as can be, a little, distinct note, a squeak really: The squeak of a floor tile being stepped on, coming from the shadowy corridor, directly behind me.
I glance over my shoulder: Outlined against her door, which is now flung wide open, there she stands: A small, hunched figure, raising a wrinkled finger at me. Grandma is short, but formidable: She is the real power in our family. No one is allowed to forget the fact that the house was bought with her savings.
Which is why dad keeps telling me we should be grateful. His face droops every time he says that, and his voice becomes strained. Really strained. So there it is. We have her to thank for the roof over our heads. In addition I have her to thank for the empty aquarium.
Somehow Grandma looks even smaller than usual, so I have to remind myself that in this family, she is the giant. She opens her mouth—but without her teeth, which are probably swimming in that glass of water, right next to her bed, you know it would be next to impossible to figure out what she says.
An intense look passes between us without a single word. I cannot imagine why she is still holding her breath. For some reason I get a funny feeling, a feeling that she is about to crumble, that she is trying, somehow, to call my name. Her finger trembles in the air and then—I cannot believe my eyes, it is such a shock, because like an old, broken doll, she comes crashing to the floor.
Mom cracks open the bedroom door and takes a peek from behind. I’m afraid that perhaps, she is wearing nothing but perfume; and so I avoid looking at her. Oh my, she cries out, oh my God! Out comes dad and upon seeing me there, crouching down beside grandma and holding her white head, he goes back in and calls 911.
Why I keep holding up her head I have no idea. Because of the hunch on her back, the head is hanging in midair even as she lies there. Dad brings out a pillow and sticks it under her neck. Then he takes a deep breath, puts his lips on hers, and—to my amazement—he blows; which is the first time I see anyone doing something like that. With each puff—I get it now—he tries to give her some air, so she may breath again. Between one try and another I can take a look at her: She still seems to be looking at me, ghastly pale, and her finger is still quivering.
Mom visits her in the hospital every day for the next two weeks, then decides to bring me along. So I see grandma again, one last time; that is, if you don’t count seeing her later, in the casket, when she looks even less like herself.
In the hospital, mom tells me she will go in first, and so I am left waiting outside the half-open door. From that distance, through the crack, I can see grandma: She is wearing a crumpled gown, which looks too big for her and too awkward, perhaps because they did not bother to alter it, the way all her dresses are altered, to account for the hunch. She looks white, like porcelain—but gripping the iron bar of the bed, gripping it with all her might she manages, somehow, by the power of pride, to wait there standing, so that mom can come up to her and give her a kiss.
Grandma notices me; for an instant we stare at each other, and I can see her papery lips move as she says to mom, irritably, What on earth possessed you to do that? And mom says, What? And, incredibly, grandma answers by asking, What did you bring him for?
And mom looks dumbfounded, so grandma turns her back on her—but from where I stand I can still see her forming the words, You think the boy should see me like this? In this state? That is how you want him to remember me? And at last mom understands her, and she goes back and gives a slight push to the door until it clicks shut, cutting me off.
And when mom comes out and we leave the hospital she can see how angry I am, because I start kicking things all along the path, I mean stones, and cracks in the asphalt, and tires of cars, kicking them hard with my injured foot. If you would ask me, right there and then, why I keep doing it, I would not know what to say.
Who cares about pain! I kick, kick, kick everything in sight, and it is not until later that day—when dad says, Want to come with me? And I say, No, no way! And then ask, Where? And he mentions the Aquarium Supply Store, where we can get a bag of sand, and even a few rocks, fancy rocks from a real coral reef—that I kick myself for being so silly, which is when, finally, I stop kicking.
The store owner, a stout man with bulgy eyes, shows me the most beautiful fish I have ever seen. Some are transparent, some—colorful. He points out the Lemon Tetras, with a shimmering stripe all the way to the fin; the Black Neons, with a red band over a yellow band over their eyes; and the Kuhli Loaches, with muddy, vertical marks over their backs.
I glance at dad and somehow, he understands the question before it is asked; he smiles at me saying, Tomorrow, son; I will get them tomorrow. It is no good adding fish to the tank the same day you fill it with water. And I look away thinking, How did he do that? How did he get me? Did it happen because I let him?
And in a snap, my mind goes back to that night, the night which I am trying to stop remembering, when grandma lost her balance. And I wonder: When dad found me there, holding up her head, was he surprised? Was he curious to know how I appeared, at that very instant, by her side, just as she tumbled over? He has never asked me about it. Did he figure it out? Does he know I was waiting there, listening, just about to rush in and save mom, save her from something, perhaps even from him? Does he know that I know that he knows?
I wonder: Can I make myself transparent, like those fish? And on the flip side, can I make myself obscure, so that no one—not even dad—can see through me?
That evening he helps me layer the sand, set the rocks and fill the tank with water. I turn on the fluorescent fixture at the top of the aquarium, and leave it turned on, so it glows through the night; and I imagine live plants rising from the gravel, and lots of fish, fish flicking their tail, shooting in and out of their hiding places between the silvery corals.
The call from the hospital comes in after midnight, and I know that the next day I will see grandma again, this time for the last, really last time. A time comes when even a giant crumbles. I lay there in bed feeling cheated, somehow; cheated by myself, mostly, because I never gave her a chance to hug me, never took the risk to come in, come closer and say, Goodbye, grandma. And now all I can remember about her is that moment, from a distance, just before the door clicked shut. I go back to that place and I see her asking, That is how you want him to remember me?
Back home after the funeral I cannot find a moment alone. The place is buzzing with neighbors and distant relatives, including my three aunts, each of whom has eyebrows painted in, in place of the real ones.
At first they talk in low voices, afraid, perhaps, that grandma might hear what they say, or come out to scold them for their manners. They bend over me and pinch my cheeks so hard that instantly, I forget all about the pain in my foot inside the bandages.
So I am forced to hide from attention. I stand there, very quietly, in the corner behind the tank, and feed the new fish, which dad got for me earlier that morning; just a smidgen between the fingers, like he told me... And then maybe one more smidgen, or two, because I hate learning lessons, and because I am bored and lonely here, in this crowd, and also because of the fish, because they look so hungry for these little specks. You can see them flocking up in a big haste, competing to reach the surface.
Then I go into grandma’s room. It does not smell like her anymore. The bedspread is fresh, and tightly stretched. There is not a dent in the pillow. The cup is still there—but her teeth have vanished; they are nowhere in sight. I try to imagine that I can hear them clattering. Then I peek into the closet.
It is tightly packed with her dresses, all of which been altered around the shoulders and back, to fit grandma. Most of them are brown. One dress has muddy, vertical patterns, just like the fish, the Kuhli Loaches. By the end of the evening all the dresses would be whisked away, right off the hangers; and my aunts—arms heavily loaded—would find it cumbersome to reach my cheeks again.
I am not stupid; I know that grandma would not need her dresses again. She is not coming back, and there is no reason to keep them. Still, I feel that her things are hers—at least for a little while longer—and what do my aunts need with her stuff? Can’t they wait? She was buried only a few hours ago, and her dresses are not going anywhere; they are not even the right size for them, and besides, it would be impossible to undo what was done, I mean, that alteration for the hump in the back.
That night all is still; there is no crying, no moaning anywhere. I get up and pace back and forth, hobbling between my room and the hall, which is lit by the reflections from the aquarium. I draw closer. A Black Neon comes toward me, turns tail, comes back aiming, it seems, directly at me. I focus at it. Magnified by the water, it is tapping, tapping into the glass until my eyes cross over. Meanwhile in the back, suspended under the surface like a ghost, is another fish. I forget what it is called. It is white; it has red eyes; and right now, you can tell it is not moving.
I watch it for a while, and the longer I watch it, the more I realize that—quite strangely—the body is starting to tilt. By now it is nearly on its side; and the tail, which is so fine, so tender that looks like it is made out of pure light, responds to little ripples coming from the other fish—but makes no motions of its own.
Before I know it my hand cuts into the water; it comes out dripping, with the fish lying there, helpless, between my fingers. It seems to be gulping for air. Maybe it forgot how to breath. I know I can fix it. First I rub the mouth, delicately, with my finger. Then I try to massage the entire body. I am doing my best, my very best to be gentle—but in the end, some scales tear off the body, and a tiny fin flakes away.
At this point, I must do something, and fast. Just like dad: He did what he could for grandma, and blew his breath into her; and his breath was magical, because it lasted in her, somehow, for the next two weeks. I can do better than that for this little body, even with a few scales or a fin missing. So, I take a deep breath, put my lips to the fish—but then the smell, the touch... They make me take a pause. Still, I cannot give up: I must be brave, just like dad—or else, the spell may be broken.
So again I gasp, and with frantic hope, I give a full-blown puff. The red eyes seem to be looking at me, and the tail is hanging over my finger, and it looks a bit crumpled. I cannot allow myself to weep; not now. So I wipe the corner of my eye. Now if you watch closely, you can see that the tail is still crinkling. I gasp, and blow again. I blow and blow, and with a last-gasp effort I go on blowing until all is lost, until I don’t care anymore, I mean it, I don’t care but the tears, the tears come, they are starting to flow, and there is nothing, nothing more I can do—
Then I feel mom, the smell of her skin; here she is, wrapping her arms around mine. Softly, gently, she releases the fish, and takes me to their bed, and dad says nothing but makes room for me, and I curl myself in the dent between them, and it feels so warm here and so sweet that at last, I can lose myself; and I cry myself to sleep.
Lighter and faster than anything here I come, soaring again through the air as if there is no gravity. From time to time you can see a school of fish flying dreamily overhead, rising to reach the little specks up there at the surface. Something with muddy, vertical marks comes ruffling towards me in the stream of things. At first I cannot tell what it is. It scrambles over my foot, spreading fine, transparent ripples all around me; and it is at the very last moment, a heartbeat before it flutters away, that I can see it was nothing, only an empty dress.
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