Story: An Arabian Ornament

This story originally appeared in Poydras Review Issue 1, released Spring 2012. Read it here…

Horror days, Nick called them, a play on the word holidays.  His mom said, “Nothing’s horrible about Christmas.”  And his dad said, “All the more reason to come home.”  But to Nick those would be horror days there, in Colorado, in Denver, at the house where Nick could easily imagine them now, at this very moment, sitting on either side of the front room, his mom on the white brocade sofa and his dad in the big brown chair, each with a phone to the ear, each leaning forward to hear him better, if just the slightest bit better, over a scratchy hiss on this international line.

His dad was saying, “Why spend the holidays there, son?  There’s fightin’ and the paper says Bali is bad.”

“I’m not in Bali,” Nick said.  “I’m nowhere near Bali.  I’m in Aswan.  It’s Egypt.  I’m in Aswan, dad.”

His father bellowed, “You’re in the ass of the world!”

“Oh!” his mother said, and “Hush!”

Nick opened the drawer of the hotel room’s narrow desk and took out stationary, one of the many stationary pads, 50 feuilles each, papier à lettres, that he’d purchased in Provence on the way over.  He pushed the calling card closer to the base of the phone. He took out a pen, too, and almost wrote Dear Kathy, but he hesitated.

His mom asked him why wouldn’t he come home, and couldn’t he if not now then soon?  Because there were packages and things that had come in the mail for him and of course gifts under the tree.  She told him how his father had cut down the tree and she’d helped him.  She’d worn new mittens.  They’d dragged the tree a mile through deep snow to the car and it had been difficult to haul it up on top of the car but they’d managed without him and it had stayed up there all the way home—a miracle, she said—and it had been freezing in the car because the windows couldn’t go all the way up, with the ropes in the way.

Nick thought of writing, Kathy, Der Panther, my horror days are complete.

“It’s a crooked tree,” she said.

But his dad said, “No, it’s straight.”

Nick interposed, “I’m sure it looks great.”

“It’s leaning a little,” his mom said.

“Don’t listen to your mother.  It’s not leanin’.  We should’ve turned it the other way, I think.  I had to move your things, Nick.  Just moved the pile to the other side of the garage so I could get at the Christmas boxes.  And there are some drips.  As you know, it happens with so much snow on the roof.”

Nick glanced at his watch.  It was the middle of the night.  He asked, “Is the sun setting there?”

“Done now,” his dad said.

“Oh, it’s dark now, Nick,” his mom said.  “Your father’s Christmas lights on the house are on, and it’s nice.  All colors, as you know.  With the little white lights around the porch.  And I put a ribbon on the front steps, a red bow.  It’s nothing, really, but makes it all just a little bit more, well, and everything’s under snow here.  We have the little ornament that you sent up on the tree.  I placed it.  Your father refused.”

“Oh, I didn’t refuse.”

“He’s right,” his mom said, “It wasn’t refusal.  That was the wrong word.”

Nick lifted the pen and thought of writing, Dear Kathy, I miss climbing mountains with you.  He made motions with the pen over the paper.  He said, “I bought that in Khan el-Khalili.”

His mom said, “What’s that, dear?”

“In Cairo, at the market.  That’s where I bought the glass ornament.  There are some booths there with Christmas ornaments, of all things.  I bought it because the man there was feeding a cat on his lap.  He was a man about my age, I think, though older, made so much older by life here, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” his dad said.

“He was eating lunch, holding a plate.  The cat was lying on his lap watching him eat with his right hand, and every so often he gave something to the cat.  The cat was taking the food, grateful for it.  It was just skin and bones, like they all are there.  Suffering.  They of course haven’t a clue that they’ve been pushed to the edge.”

His mom sighed.  “It’s just not Christian.”

“Later,” Nick said, “I was at the top of the bead market and I found a necklace strung with silver cats, dozens of them.  And there was a butterfly darting about the place.”

“A butterfly,” his dad said.

“There was a cat there, too, there at the bead market, and it was watching this butterfly, fascinated by it.  In the corner some men were cooking, and there were some small tables where the men took their meals.  The cat had somehow found its way up there.  Nobody paid it any attention.  Maybe, after the food was cleared away, the cat would find a morsel to help it through another day.  The cats need kindness.  And it’s moments of kindness like the one I witnessed, someone feeding it instead of shooing it away.  Hundreds of them.  Millions of them.  Needing kindness.”

“Cats,” his dad said.

His mom said, “No mice around there, I bet.”

“I got lost more than once in those market streets, but I found his shop again.  The cat was gone, and I bought the ornament from him, and I bought some other things, some pottery, a little statue.  He told me his name was Ayman, which means something about doing things with the right hand, he said.  I told him that I’d seen him feeding the cat.”

“The right hand, you say.”

Nick thought of writing, Dear Kathy, you and I are each a wing on a butterfly in chrysalis.

His mom said, “I can’t keep it straight, all these places you’ve been.”

Nick said, “You could put up a map on the wall and pin everywhere I’ve been, where I am, where the cruise took me from Luxor down here to Aswan, the ass of the world.”

“That’s right,” his dad said.

“Oh hush,” his mom said again, and his dad was chuckling.  “You’re terrible, you two.”

“What are your plans for the day, Nick?  What are you up to over there?”  It sounded like one of those questions his dad would ask after dinner, while his mom cleared the table.  Nick imagined the dining room table, his dad sitting on the other side of it, crossing his arms, and looking at him down the length of his nose.  It would be dark outside, and Nick would be able to see the reflection of himself in the glass door to the side yard.  He imagined his dad wondering how the hell he was going to get in the questions he really wanted to ask.  There would be stubble on his dad’s chin this late in the day, some of it white.

Nick said, “Well, dad, I’m not really sure about this day.  Certainly I’m booked solid through the rest of the week with important things that must be attended to.  Yesterday I found myself back at the market, because I’ve been negotiating with this one fellow on his price of saffron.  It’s Iranian saffron, good stuff, and very expensive in the States.  We start the bargaining process over every time—he says it’s this price, and I say no, this price, and he says no, this price, and we go on and on, whittling down until he won’t budge any further.  His wife sits in the back in the corner, in silence, under some hanging baskets.  She’s putting things into jars, separating, and anyway I can only see her eyes.  And of course her hands, reaching into a bag and pulling out hibiscus or coriander or cloves or something and, well, she’s exquisite.”

“All right,” his dad said.  “Where are you heading, Nick?  Is it still India?  You told us India but you never do seem to get there.  Go to India.  Do what you have to do and get home, will you?  Maybe another week.  Maybe two weeks.  Maybe you get home in time for the new year and we figure out what’s next.”

“Yes, do,” his mom said.

“You can meet with the good Father again.  He likes you, Nick.  Says you aren’t doing anything wrong so far’s he’s concerned.  Nothing wrong with trying to figure things out.  Just takes some longer than others.”

“That’s right, isn’t it,” his mom said.

“Maybe we can all go up in the mountains together,” his dad said.  “And by God we’ll chant until we find ourselves an answer.  Whatever you want to do.  We can even freeze to death.  Let’s get up there and get good and frozen.  Your mother and I won’t mind at all.”

“Not at all,” his mom said.  “Well, frozen, I don’t know.”

“They’re everywhere,” Nick said.  “Everywhere I look, they’re dashing about.  The cats.  Searching.  Or they’re waiting, sitting, watching—from a doorway, under a table, under my very own chair at the table in Fishawi’s.  Like ghosts but they don’t disappear in that way.  I see them in the corner of my eye.”

His dad said, “Ghosts don’t exist, Nick.”

“Well, yes, but sometimes a thing exists in my own perception of the world—it haunts me, that’s right, isn’t it.  Thin.  It would break your heart, mom, to see how thin these cats are.  Impoverished.”

“Your mother doesn’t need any more of that.  She’s seen more heartbreaking dramas than you have, Nick.  Remember that.  Years of it.  All that business with the hospitals.  We’ve all been through a lot, everyone has, and there comes a point when you’ve seen enough—enough already.”

“Oh well I haven’t seen Egypt,” his mom said.  “Halfway around the world.”

Nick said, “Not quite halfway, actually, but yes precisely dad, I don’t disagree.”

“Look, son,” his dad said, “you’re being too hard on yourself.”

His mom said, “Let me tell him about the girl.”

“Just a minute, Margaret.  There’s something I wanted to say.  Another year, Nick.  You’ve only been out of school for a year, a year and half, or whatever it’s been, with that science degree.  Another year as a junior at that robotics research firm would do you good.  You know it.  We all know it.”

“It’s not a research firm,” Nick said, pushing his fingers up into his hair, the hair standing up between his fingers—not unlike, he realized, the arched back of a cat—and on the other side of the narrow desk his reflection in the window stared back at him like that.  “It’s a factory, dad.”

“Nick, you’re the first real scientist in my whole family.  You know that.  I’ve told you that.  Man recovery systems, positionin’, or whatever it’s called.  Gettin’ a bead on the location of someone who needs help.  It’s important work.  You’re taking it too personally, what happened.  When they figured out what you were spending time on.  Your idea,” and his dad exhaled a short laugh, “the idea about how to find people who are out on the ocean.  People who need to be rescued.  A downed plane and hundreds of people floating out there, somewhere, out in the middle of an ocean, holding on to something for dear life.  A raft maybe.  A piece of a wing.  And you want to rely on—well, your whole idea, it’s not based in reality.  All that business about the talking fish—”

“Whales, dad.”

Nick heard a sound—it was maybe his dad’s hand falling to his lap in exasperation—and then his mom inhaled to interrupt, but then his dad said, “Nick, you can’t really expect them to cooperate.”

“Yeah, the firm didn’t like—”

“No, the damn whales!”

His mom said, “I’m sure it was genius.”

His dad sighed, and then no one spoke until his dad said, “Go ahead, Margaret.  Tell him about the girl.”

Nick interrupted, “Yes, mom, my goodness, please do tell me about the girl.  I suppose you mean Kathy.”

His mom said, “I ran into Evelyn Warnecke at the grocery store.”

Nick said, “You don’t pronounce the e.  Warnecke.  Without the e.”

“You don’t say.”

“And you’ve got it all wrong,” Nick said.  “Her mom’s name is Rachel.”

“Yes, well, this is Kathy’s grandmother, Evelyn.  We were both reaching in for—well, it doesn’t matter, I suppose.  We clip the same coupons, isn’t that funny.  And she recognized me from that time, about this time last year, wasn’t it, when we went over there for dinner and she was there, and of course Kathy was there that time, too, and you and Kathy were—”

“Yes, yes,” Nick said.

His dad interrupted, “Margaret, he knows we buy meat.  He knows we eat it.  Just say it.  What were you reachin’ for?  At the grocery store.  What were you reachin’ for?”

“It’s not important.”

“What were you reachin’ for, Margaret?”

“Frozen chicken.”

“There.  Now what did she say?  Tell him what she said.”

“Honestly, Frank, let me talk.  Well, Evelyn Warnecke told me Kathy’s been drinking tea.  Let me start over.  Evelyn had a bunch of fresh mint in her shopping cart.  She held it up, waving it around, and she told me it was for Kathy.  She has been smuggling it in for the poor girl.  Rachel and Mr. Warnecke have forbidden their daughter from it.  They have forbidden it!  Mint, of all things!”  She laughed abruptly, a short burst of breath.  “And you, Nick,” she added, “your letters to her.  They’re holding the letters now, for now.  And the book of poems you sent, in German of all things.  And you’re not allowed to talk to her on the phone.  Evelyn told me all that.”

Nick said, “They tell me Kathy’s not there.  I called yesterday.”

“Oh, she’s there.”

His dad said, “Tell him she’ll be fine, Margaret.”

“She’ll be fine, Nick, but you see Evelyn told me she’s mumbling now sometimes things they can’t understand and she’s…how does one say it.”

“Lost,” his dad said.

“Lost, yes.  She’s at home, of course.”

“Not lost.”

“No, not the right word.  Evelyn was waving the mint at me and told me she knew what Kathy meant when she asked for tea and a banana.  She doesn’t want a banana.  She wants mint.  She’s putting the mint in the tea.  Now what harm is that?”

Nick said, “What harm indeed.”  Nick thought of writing, Kathy, you are shy banana, and this is where suffering begins and ends.

His dad said, “What’s that banana business?”

“Oh, I told you, Frank.  Evelyn said it’s a code word for the mint.  Kathy’s word, and only Evelyn understands it.  How Evelyn figured that out, I’ll never know.  Crazy people get like that, using different words.”

“Crazy’s not the right word,” his dad said.  “Let’s not commit the girl just yet.  She’s just got herself mixed up a little.  She’ll be fine.”

Nick said, “It’s me, isn’t it.  They blame me.  Don’t they.”

His dad said, “Yep, that’s right, son.  And don’t you know it.  Won’t even give you the respect to talk to you on the phone.  What kind of people are they, anyway?”

“Good people,” his mom said.

“Oh yes, they are,” his dad said.  “They’re good people.  Everybody’s just a little mixed up.  Just got to give folks time to work it out for themselves.  Isn’t that right, Margaret.  It works out.  It gets worked out.”

“If you say so, Frank.  Anyway, I’m sure she doesn’t understand, Nick.”

“Understand what, mom?”

“Well, why it is you’ve gone halfway around the world.  When she’s here.”

There was a faint tick, tick and Nick imagined she was toying with the zipper at the neck of her red fleece pullover, flipping the zipper—tick—flipping it—tick.  And his dad in a fleece pullover, too, his blue.  And there in that room would be the decorated fir in the corner with its fresh and pungent incense, mixed with the cedar fire’s gritty odor, a fire that by now had burned low, so low there would be but a glow of embers behind the glass and brass and brick of the fireplace.  The woodpile outside by the garage would now be covered again with the blue tarp and tied down against the wind and now, perhaps at this very moment, snowflakes were lighting on it again, a white sprinkling on that field of blue.  And on the neighbor’s woodpile, and on all the woodpiles, all the houses and out on the street his silver convertible Super Beetle that might as well be a blue Plymouth and all the cars and the streets and the yards so that everything, everywhere, all seemed the same—a thing under snow looked like everything else under snow.

“My letters,” Nick said into their silence.  “Do you think they’re opening them, reading them?”

His dad said, “Of course they are.  Wouldn’t you?  Your only child, a girl no less—wouldn’t you, Nick?”

“I don’t know that I would.”

His mom said, “Oh for heavens sake what does it matter that they read them?  Keep writing, Nick.  Just—”

“Yes,” his dad said.  “By all means, keep writin’ to her.”

– –

Nick remained for a time at the narrow desk in front of the window.  Absently tapping the calling card on its edge—on blank stationary, a muffled tap, tap, tap.  In the window there was only his reflection staring back into the room.  He’d stacked books on a corner of the desk, wider at the base, so that it was a little leaning pyramid of books, balanced just so.  He reached out to touch the top one, an early journal he’d been editing, and the pyramid came down in a thunderous tumble.  And then there was a silence the likes of which he’d never known.

He swept up the calling card and left the desk.  He filled the electric kettle with bottled water and flipped it on.  He pulled open a tea bag and dumped the leaves into a teacup.  And then he dropped in a spoon, rattling, into the teacup.  In the closet he took out of his jacket a brown-paper package about the size of his fist.  By the teacup, he carefully unfolded and pushed back the brown paper wrapping, exposing tender leafy sprigs of mint.  He put in half the sprigs.  He folded the brown paper once, again on each side, and again at the top, and tied it closed tightly with twine.

And then he opened the old brown suitcase, the one with metal clasps and a frayed corner, the one his dad had given him to take to the university because twenty-odd years earlier his mom had noticed the suitcase in his dad’s dorm room and said it had character, and she’d said doesn’t a suitcase tell you something about a man’s character, and so she’d stayed on with him and they’d married.  Under several fluffy pairs of socks, Nick found the little, thumb-size white envelope he’d brought from Cairo.  It was the tiniest of envelopes, with a delicate flap to secure its precious contents, a powder that looked like the cedar ash he’d so often shoveled out of the fireplace into the big tin can like his dad had taught him.  He poured the powder onto a book.  Using the calling card, he carefully divided it and swept half into the teacup, and half back into the envelope.

The kettle, rumbling at boil now, sounded a loud click, and Nick poured the steaming water.  While he waited for it to cool, so he could down it all at once, he put the twine package, the little white envelope, and a necklace strung with silver cats in a smallish cardboard box.  Then he went through the desk, the pile of books, and finally his suitcase until he found the pocket-size black book of addresses.  He addressed the box to Kathy at Evelyn’s address.

Nick stuck the tip of his finger in the tea.  It had cooled enough, perhaps.  He leaned in, putting his nose over it.  Mint, he smelled, and he thought again of writing Dear Kathy, you are shy banana.  And he smelled the woodpile out by the garage, or maybe he smelled a wood fire.  And he smelled something like the engine of his Volkswagen.

He held his nose and drank it down, fitfully, in sputtering gulps.

He wiped his mouth, set down the cup, and then no longer felt the energy to stand.  He sat on the bed.  He felt a sharp pain in his chest, a horrible something more than the heat of the tea searing its way down deep into him.  He hung his head in his hands, and for some time the only thing that moved were his lips.

Nick coughed, and then his eyelids began to flutter like the butterflies that had risen up around Kathy when, he remembered, she’d stepped into a wildflower field on Lily Mountain.

“Kathy,” he said, standing up, “the butterflies!”  And his window reflection seemed to answer in Arabic.  He moved, stumbling—half of each foot was gone—and he put the box by the door.

With the burning in his chest, he wrestled his way across the bed to the desk and there he picked up the pen but some fingers on his right hand were gone.  He said to his reflection, “It’s too late.”  He reached for a book to tear out the page where Nagarjuna said it’s better not to have the itching than to have the pleasure of scratching, but the book fell away from his clumsy hands.  He said to his reflection, “It’s too late,” but he couldn’t understand what he’d said until his reflection said this mantra again, and again, and again.

– –

Kathy sat cross-legged on the rug at the end of her bed.  The rug lay on the fir floorboards a little more than the width of her sleigh bed, and between the bed and a walnut dresser of drawers with a blue chair beside it, just inside the door.  The rug was, for her, the center of her room, where everything important happened.  It had been some weeks now since the day her mother had rushed in with this rug after an afternoon of shopping in Cherry Creek North.  Rolling up an old threadbare thing.  Her mother had said, “Here, get up off the bed and help me with this, Kathy,” and they’d rolled out the new one.  The rug was black, Kathy had noted, with a pattern of big roses.  Not quite black, her mother had said.  Her mother had said it was perhaps eggplant.  Kathy had raised her eyebrows:  Plum?  Then shook her head, No, no, it’s not plum.  And her mother had said it was ash gray or charcoal gray—yes, charcoal, Kathy, it’s charcoal.

Kathy had said charcoal and ashes were not this dark.

However you look at it, her mother had said, it’s not black.

It was the softest place to stand.  It was where she disrobed, where she draped clothes onto the chair.  Under the chair was where she kicked her cashmere slippers.  It was where she stood appraisingly or scathingly in front of the full-length mirror on the inside of her closet door.  It was where she tried on necklaces and bracelets, or without bracelets, and these with or without rings.  It was where she liked to sit when she talked to Nick on the phone, her back against the dresser, one knee up and the other straight out.  But that was before her mother had taken the phone away.

Kathy, with her hands, pulled her heels up onto her thighs.  It was very uncomfortable.  She thought she might snap in two.  She couldn’t imagine how monks or Buddhists or yogis or whoever could do this for any longer than a few minutes.  How Nick could do it.  Her lips shaped the word padmasana, the Sanskrit name for this posture.

She lowered her heels again to the floor and did a long exhale to slow her breathing, like Nick had said to do, the day he’d left, the day she’d helped him carry his suitcases down to the porch of his parents’ house and she’d been out of breath coming out onto the porch.  “Try a long exhale,” he’d said, “to slow your breathing.”  She’d said, “The suitcases are so heavy.”  And he’d told her there were books, books, more books, and clean fluffy socks, and he wasn’t even certain he’d remembered to pack the essentials.  He’d laughed and repeated this word essentials a few times until she’d put her hand on his arm, his shoulder, pulling him toward her, and they’d kissed, panting.

And then he’d left.

Kathy shook her hands in the air—she’d had them on her knees and her palms were hot now.  Her back was aching but of course it wasn’t anything truly horrible like the day when she was eleven she’d fallen down the porch steps and broken her leg—right there, she mouthed, opening her eyes only enough to see her leg through her lashes.  This way of looking without opening her eyes was something she’d done the day when Nick had come into the front room, when she’d been waiting in her dad’s blue chair, waiting for him to pick her up and he’d been ten minutes late.  Of course, she hadn’t fallen asleep, only pretended.  She’d heard his old VW Super Beetle coming from two blocks away.  She’d heard her mother let him in the front door.  She’d only wanted to make him feel bad for being late.  She’d even snored once.  And there he’d stood, looking at her like she’d grown wings or something, like she was some fascinating bug he’d never seen before, like she was a cicada that had flown in and landed in the chair—thwack!  She opened her eyes now to look full at him, like she had that day.  But now, he wasn’t there.  She closed her eyes again.

They’d gotten so hot in his car, necking, twisting around each other, gasping, until her back ached from all the twisting and there seemed to be no way to do it like they both wanted.  She’d said, “There’s not enough room,” and put her hands up to slow him down.  And so, two days later, he’d taken her on a daytrip into the mountains.  They’d hiked uphill forever, it seemed, toward a summit that probably hadn’t even been up there.  And then, following the trail into a sunny field of wildflowers, she’d stepped through some low bushes growing out over the trail and startled hundreds of butterflies into flight.  Behind her, he’d said her name in a breathless way.  He’d been so surprised at the rush of butterflies, he’d been so taken by the sight of her with those butterflies lighting up into the air around her, that she’d pulled him closer, and led him away into the heart of the field.  It hadn’t been magical like she’d hoped it might be with him.  She’d asked him to wear a condom, and he’d said of course he’d wanted to, and he had one, and it took him some time to put it on.  Afterward she’d told him it was the best experience she’d ever had.  On the hike down she’d said she hoped he hadn’t thought she meant to say that she’d had a lot of experiences, because she hadn’t, and he’d said that it was true, neither of them had done it very many times.

Two days later in the car he’d said, “Perhaps we might get married.”  It had almost been too much for her.  What was she to say to such a thing?  Staring out the filthy window at cars coming their way.  And those two words, perhaps and might, so snugly seated in his sentence, made it all seem so easy, didn’t it?  Made it seem like a gentle breeze could lift a proposal of marriage right out of one’s palm and suspend it in the air, a miracle of buoyancy.  Instinctively, she’d said, “Perhaps you might hold a job.”  And then a giggle had sputtered from her lips and they’d laughed.  She’d leaned over and kissed him on the lips, and he’d lost the wheel and almost run the car right off the road.

The phone rang down the hall, and then of course it was impossible to concentrate.  She listened to her mother walk over, the hall floorboards creaking, and pick it up.  But she couldn’t make out what her mother was saying.  So she was thinking about Nick, and could it be Nick, and it very possibly was Nick because, after all, wouldn’t he want to be calling, as much as she wanted to call him?  She heard her mother hang up the phone.

She almost cried.  She coughed lightly, gripping her knees.

She heard the door open.

“Kathy?  Are you all right?”

“Yes, mother.”

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing, mother?”  Kathy’s hands slid down from her knees, and she opened her eyes, limiting her gaze to a rose about a dozen inches away in the rug’s pattern.  She imagined a cup of mint tea there.  Meditating on an object, as Nick had described it.  Contemplating the construction of the tea.  The circumstance of the cup, the tea leaves, the mint, the water.  Contemplating the instruction that might unfold.  Her lips shaped the Arabic word for mint tea, shai bi-na’ana, and her lips shaped this word again and again.

“Who knows,” her mother said.  “And why are the drapes closed?”  Her mother’s bare foot stepped over her right knee.  Her mother had stuffed cotton puffs between her toes, the nails freshly painted a new purple, and her jeans were rolled up into a high cuff.  She threw open the drapes.  “It’s beautiful out.  Just look at it.  And you’re in here.  Here, on the floor.”

Kathy said, “Well, if I had a good book maybe I’d be on the bed.  Reading, of all things.  I’d like to read some German.”

“You don’t read German.  There’s no sense in you having that book right now.  We agreed.  You promised Father Macey, remember, to take things in a little moderation.”

“Yes.”  Kathy closed her eyes.  “It’s just that we didn’t exactly define moderation, did we.  And Nick asked me to read it.  Didn’t he.  In one of his letters.”

She heard her mother settle in the blue chair.  She imagined her mother, one foot pulled up onto the seat so that she could examine her toenails and give the cotton puffs minor and needless adjustments.  Kathy thought of the word balasana, Nick’s favorite posture, and her lips shaped this word again and again.

Her mother asked, “How’s your homework coming along?”

There was something different about her mother’s voice.  There was something in it she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard before.  “Homework is fine.  I have more to do today.”

“It’s nice that you’ve chosen to talk to me this morning.  You can’t imagine how difficult it is to try to have a conversation with your daughter who refuses to give you the time of day and does ridiculous chanting.  Have you at least been saying the Hail Mary like Father asked you to?”

“Mother, please.  It’s just yoga.  You act like it’s—”

“Well, I’ve never seen anything so terrifying,” her mother said, looking up at the wall.

“—like I’m shooting junk into my veins or something.”

“Kathy, please, that kind of talk is so…under these circumstances.  I mean, you know what we’re going through.  Your father and I.  Dear God.  If Father Macey hadn’t said there wasn’t any harm in yoga I don’t know what—”

“We know nothing,” Kathy said.  “That’s what’s terrifying.”

“Who’s we?  Everyone?  Oh we know everything there is worth knowing.”

“Of course we do.”

“Don’t take that tone with me young lady.”

“Yes, mother.  Anyway, it’s not yoga.”

“What do you mean it’s not yoga?  What’s not yoga?  You just said it’s yoga.”

“Never mind.”

“God the way you talk in circles.  Well, you think I know nothing, we know nothing, but the harm in all this is—”  Her mother stopped talking.  Kathy opened one eye long enough to see that her mother was indeed looking at her.  Her mother said, “You’re not even listening to me.”

“That’s the harm in all this?”

Kathy moved her lips to the Hail Mary.  It was still there, something different, in her mother’s voice.  Kathy imagined her mother studying her with her usual apprehensive stare, and then surveying the room, to take note of what had been moved here or there, was there something about Nick in the room, was there anything that needed to be done.  Her mother would not see between the mattress and the box springs a wet spot where she’d stuffed soggy sprigs of mint, wrapped in socks today, an old T-shirt a few days ago.  Grandma would slip these into her purse to smuggle out of the house, and leave fresh sprigs there.

Her mother said, “Well, only a few weeks left, and next semester will be here and gone before you know it, and you’ll be done with it.”

Kathy asked, “Was that him again?  On the phone.”

“No,” her mother said.  “It was your grandmother.  She called to tell me she’s driving over.  Just when I was about to go out.  I want someone else to do my manicure today.  Maybe you’ll come with me to the spa.  Your nails are suffering.  Look at them.  Are you chewing them again?  You’d stopped for a while.”

“Grandma knows we’re here.”  Kathy opened her eyes to look at her mother, who in fact had one foot pulled up onto the seat.  “Why would she call?”

“It wasn’t him, Kathy.”  She lowered her foot to the rug.  She had more of the cotton puffs in her hands.  “Your grandmother’s old, you know.  It’s dangerous for her to be driving across town as much as she does, to see you.  I do wish you’d tell her you’re all right.  She’s worried to death about you.  It’s not natural, she tells me and you know what I said to her?  I said no, you’re wrong, you don’t see it, do you?  It’s the most natural thing in the world.  What you’re feeling, Kathy.  What you’re experiencing.  You think I didn’t have one or two spells like this in my day?  Of course I did.  Every girl does.”

Shaking.  It was as if her mother was shaking.  But she wasn’t.

The phone rang and then stopped ringing.

Kathy said, “Did dad pick that up?”

“I suppose he did.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s in the living room.”

“Finishing the paper?” Kathy said, looking at the wall, in the direction of the living room.  “Reading the news, the business section, the sports.  He told me once the world news is important to stay on top of.  He reads in his chair by the window, wearing his slippers.  The morning’s cup of coffee, black coffee, on the end table.  He picks up the cup and sees it’s not hot anymore and puts it back down.  He builds a fire in the morning before I get up.  Is his fire still going?”

“It’s out now, I imagine.  Can’t have the fire burning all day.”

“He likes to sit in there with the Christmas tree.  He told me—you know what he told me?  That it’s the smell he likes.  But that’s not it at all.”

“Have you got him all figured out?  What is it, then?”

“He likes to give gifts.  It’s his favorite thing.  The way he hands out the gifts every Christmas to you, me, and how he makes the stack for himself by his chair.  He really doesn’t want to open his own. He lights up when it comes around to me to open my next one.  You know he’s the most generous person I’ve ever known.”

Her mother said, “He won’t give you the book, either, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Kathy frowned, her shoulders slumping forward.  “You’re terrible, mother.”

“Your father doesn’t even like to talk about anything like this.”

Kathy straightened up and closed her eyes.  She thought of the word shanthi and her lips began to move, mouthing Sanskrit chants that she did not understand.

Her mother said, “All right.”

After a moment, Kathy said, “All right what?”

Kathy heard a quiet click in the distance.  Could it be the front door?  Grandma?  She wanted so much to tell Grandma now—she was ready to tell her now—that he says he doesn’t belong, doesn’t belong anywhere, you see, he’d said.  And what more could she possibly do to show him that she belongs with him?

There was a faint rustle—it was like the sound of hundreds of butterflies taking flight when, she remembered, she’d stepped into a wildflower field on Lily Mountain, and Nick had said, “Kathy, the butterflies!” and never had there been such a gorgeous moment—but the sound was her mother’s swift movement and as Kathy opened her eyes her mother was upon her, her knee painfully on her shin, her fingers gripping her shoulders, shaking her violently by the shoulders.  Her mother sobbing, “Stop it!  Stop it!”  And Kathy:  “Mom stop it!  Mom stop it!”  Her mother let go, and her torso was turning, her hand moving through the air, and her mother’s hand hit her across the face.  The concussion of it knocked her face to one side, and arrested her.  Her father hollered, pulling her mother away, “Rachel!  Rachel!”  Her mother screamed, kicking, “He’s dead!  He’s dead!”  Her father pulled her out and slammed the door closed.

Kathy stared at the door, a crease deepening on her brow—dead to her, she’d meant to say.  The door burst open again and Grandma rushed in, throwing arms around her, pulling her tight.  Her silver hair against Kathy’s cheek.  She smelled of roses, wildflowers, the mountain fields.  She withdrew and, with her thumbs, wiped tears from Kathy’s face.  She had a smallish cardboard box with her.  She pushed it under the bed and winked, and tried to smile, but she was crying, and so was Kathy now, too.  Kathy took her hand briefly as Grandma stood up, and then Grandma left the room, closing the door behind her.

One Reply to “Story: An Arabian Ornament”

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