SHORT STORY: Reproached
Synopsis: Emotional expression is throttled within the confines of an incestuous relationship. For one unfortunate family, the added complexities of infirmity and poverty make life even more precarious.
His papery skin stretches taught across wormy veins and flickering bones as he taps his fingers on the tabletop. Those hands, father's hands. Once upon a time strong and decisive now quivering faintly at the memory of years of labor. She rubs the lotion gently across his little scales, blending creamy white into paper causing it to glisten in the long beams of morning sun. Another fortuitous day.
Bundled against the cold, they sip smoky tea on the porch rockers, quiet mountains hovering over them like a mother over her sleeping infant. They trade oblique looks, feeling out the sentiments of one another, not bothering to convolute feelings with words. Sips. Swallows. Thousand mile stares into the vacant mountainside, the language of two people trapped in reflection, momentarily unaware of the physical world around them.
He coughs and she automatically 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 of faux respite every morning. Little is said. Little needs to be said in a chess game of subtle moves. Appropriate responses are extremely limited and each one has a long lineage. It's better to avoid talking, to reflect instead of tempting calamity.
His recent diagnosis was bleak. No chance for recovery just a long, grueling wait for the end. Not excessively painful, just excessively drawn out. She has always been there. Always there to help, always there to deflect pain or absorb shame.
The unbearable quiet grows louder each day. Days become choked with humiliating, menial tasks. Diapers, it seems, were meant to be a part of her life yet. Not the cute little ones she imagined wrapped around a beautiful baby girl, but the incontinent sort. In a world of zero options, the burden in the hand is better than no burden at all. Or is it?
Money never offered any solutions, primarily because of its limited supply. Emotional release came in the cold nose of a furry friend, but that type of help didn't wipe asses or clean bed sheets. It did, however, lift her spirits on the worst days. Any other assistance was divine and promised recompense for being selfless, charitable.
Mom bailed out young, found a better life half a world away never to be heard from again. So the two of them just sit, Dad and daughter, watching, waiting for time to pass as comfortably, quickly as possible. Spring is around the corner, and it is nearly time to prepare for the garden's rebirth. Each season she performs the backbreaking work to put food on the table, dirt to dish. Dish to shit. Shit to diaper. Diaper back to dirt. Poverty's numbing economic cycle.
Little hands and feet still consume her dreams as they always have. Little pink onesie with a single yellow carnation. Little silver snaps between two pudgy legs. A swollen, tender breast needed, wanted by a child. Talcum powder sprinkled on a diaper rash, or maybe slapped sullenly with a towel onto a wizened face after a shave. The smell of powder wakes her in the morning, it opens new wounds and multiplies the unanswered questions consuming her mind. Each new day dredges up more forgotten memories and eventually being awake feels more like dreaming than dreaming does. Too many unrealities to consider at once. She buries her regrets in the backyard beneath the ever-growing burn pile. The pragmatism of avoidance beckons her to focus on her duties, her six foot child.
He is grateful, and it shows. Periodic kisses on the cheek, the never-ending mumble of thanks, the humbling, self-deprecating jokes about useless male equipment nobody should be obligated to view. Obligated? She hates the jokes but rationalizes that coping mechanisms aren't eloquent tools, but rather the guerilla tactics of the infirmed. She has become an expert in rationalization. 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 never learned how to ride in the first place and constantly wrecks, requires attention.
Time for a shave. The blade moves gingerly upon loose skin, nicking tags of superfluous flesh as she attempts to navigate the best path. His eyes are closed, trusting in a steady hand, younger eyes, and a thick lather. He knows she abhors blood, and will do anything to prevent it seeping through his thin, porous veneer. He finds a sliver of comfort in this knowledge. One careful stroke at a time. Shake the blade in scalding water. Dab with a towel. Talcum for the baby.
Rarely do they speak of the incident, especially in these past few years. As his senescent mind slips, he struggles to recall much about the incident. He does know that it was not his fault, her baby didn't stand a chance in this world. She was poor. He was poor. They are both still wretchedly poor. A child starting that far behind in life doesn't stand a chance anyway. And that is where his failing mind loses friction with the realities of the past. Details are fuzzy. Memories have lost their vibrancy, their concrete nature. They are pliable, moldable and easily forgotten. Deceiving even. Most of his memories are so trivial and insipid, evoked mechanistically by bodily signals or the sun's position. And these memories arrive muddled anyhow, requiring her assistance to execute. Time to put food in mouth. Time to change a diaper.
Every once in a while, an insidious flicker of hope wells up within her. You can't win the lottery if you don't play. To finally win catharsis. When hope rises, she wants to shake him, speak every withheld thought, pour it all out once and for all. She wants to bring up the past, the parts never addressed, and remind him how good things could have been. The baby was the innocent, beautiful reality of a confused and shameful situation. She wants to point out in hyper-articulated detail just how wrong he was. Every little detail that has driven her to the brink of madness. But, she is a realist. She knows how that scenario plays out. Her angry tears. His confused, awkward attempt at sympathetic tears. No, their interactions are limited to the tedious prolongation of his life at this point: stomach filling, body washing. Love, be it daughterly or incestuously, is only expressed by the pain and humiliation assumed through nursing. For him, love can only be expressed by constant reticence or by excessive apologies when he must speak. If only she could reach him. If only he was capable of hearing. If only the clocks could be turned back twenty, thirty years. But it's all a thought experiment. There is too much to be done, so hope will just wither on the vine. Mouths need food. Daddy needs a fresh diaper. Daughter needs rest. Companions dancing stoically toward their liberation from love.
She was so young when her baby girl arrived to the slurping sounds of a modified residential vacuum cleaner. He was so clever with machinery back in the day, tinkering with this and that. He comforted her like a good father would, not that there was anyone but him. "This is the right move" he refrained often, selling her on a decision she forcibly made. He was relieved. She was obliterated, confused. Their daughter, encased in a Hoover bag and placed on the burn pile with a white lily, lit up the night sky in a solemn vigil. Smoke trails winding to the moon and the soothing burn of whiskey. Months passed, years too, but memories that strong are not buried in time. Care and devices were used to prevent future daughters, and a loveless life of forbidden conjugality continued, shame partially absolved by constantly avoiding eye contact.
"I never loved her, your mom" was his way of providing cynical reassurance to her. But this cocktail of familial oddities only agitated the silent jealousy, rage and sadness exploding in her young mind. "Your mother and I were emotionally divorced before you were born, physically divorced a year later" he repeated often. "Since she left, I've never had another person to love apart from you." He would say this to strengthen their bond, all the while studying, reading her reactions, trying to decipher the maturing thoughts in her head. Always prepared for a counter. He always carefully measured his moves, but that was when his head was sharper, more lucid.
Time for soup. On today's menu is a clear vegetable soup, bread on the side. Simple and like everything in this remote outpost, hard-toiled, farm to table. She will help him with the spoon else he will feed his lap. She works his hands often, each time wishing she could have controlled his hands in the past. Hands, formerly manipulative and strong have surrendered and now shake incessantly with inherent guilt or so she likes to imagine.
A puberty of strategic rejections for a sensitive girl, and a self-confidence that was methodically deconstructed by him each time it began to root in her. Of course she knew she wasn't the most attractive, the most outgoing, but she still believed in the possibility of miracles. Time was on her side, that is, up until the point where he decided to become her demigod, the single source for all emotional fulfillment, the one who doesn't deny, the one who will not abandon her, but the one whose demands are absolute. Spots of red on a mattress and a little girl watching a sliver of light shrink into nothingness as the door shuts on a silent, black bedroom. Burning eyes and the taste of salt acting as commitment's collateral. Juvenile emotions fully manipulated. An infatuation stealthily crafted, explained as true love, then hijacked.
Back on the porch, the mountains staring down, the hazy skyline blending grey into the mountaintops. The silent deluge of snowflakes falling two miles high. The isolation, the tyranny of days. Bundled, they blow the smoke off their tea. The distant sound of a truck winding its way down a lower service 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 he held in reserve. Either way, the little strength he commands is not requested by his brain. He feels compelled, as if it was his duty, to remain as perfectly still as possible. He certainly doesn't want to go, life doesn't work that way, but he feels it's time to pay his debts. He pets her hand gently, knowingly, attempting to fire some communication signals through his frail and papery outer layer. She is firm, but it doesn't require her to call on much strength as his is a fraction of what it used to be.
He has stopped petting her, his hand dangles, the shaking has ceased. She removes the plastic bag from his head, walks it over to the burn pile and tosses it in. She rejoins her cup of tea. She sits, sipping, blowing, and watching the snowfall in the mountains, thinking about nothing in particular.
- all story images are taken from pixabay and are free to use under creative commons
- original story, content belongs to Daniel Shortell