3LBE #17
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The Five Stages of Grief

by Nadia Bulkin

 

Matilda died on Saint Agatha’s Day, even though she is my patron saint. When Matilda took a bad turn and the doctors said it was time to make preparations, mother and father gave Saint Agatha to Matilda, just because of the date. She was too young to be confirmed and they couldn’t let her cross over without a patron saint.

But Saint Agatha was mine, and I thought that Matilda could have chosen her own, because she came home the morning after feast day in her hospital gown. Father was carrying her. I remember — I was sitting on the chair with Lelacey on my lap facing the locks and bolts on the door. Mother was carrying all of Matilda’s things, the stuffed rabbit and the picture books and the little yellow duck that clapped. The three of them went up the stairs in a flurry, with mother singing nursery rhymes. I watched Matilda during their ascent and she had a strangeness in her eyes, a distance. They’d get darker later, as weeks passed.

She sat at the table and watched us eat for the first of many times that night. Mother talked to her continuously, but the rest of us couldn’t. For all of mother’s prodding Matilda would only stare at the food. She didn’t have silverware or a plate set out for her but she still reached over to the potatoes with her pale baby arms.

“Matilda,” said mother, but she put them in her mouth anyway. Then her face puckered.

“I can’t taste it!” said Matilda. She shoveled in more and her tantrum became an alarm because she couldn’t taste any of it, she said. Father said that she wasn’t really hungry, this was just out of habit, and mother just said her name: “Matilda, Matilda.”

I sent myself to bed early, and took Lelacey with me. Her screaming went on for another hour before quiet overcame, and then our bedroom door opened and father brought Matilda in. She was a still heap by then — it looked like he was carrying a stack of fire logs. He tucked her in and took a step back as if he was making sure that the sheets weren’t moving with her breathing. I called him and he came.

“Why is Matilda still here?” I was whispering so she wouldn’t hear even though her bed, aside from the lump in the middle that was her, looked unlived in. It was no change for me — it was lifeless and bare all through her hospital stay too. Grandma and Grandpa went to Zurichia.

He stroked my arm. He squinted but it was dark. When he smiled his teeth didn’t show, they didn’t glimmer — they were hiding behind his workman lips. “Because we’re not ready for her to go yet.”

I looked at the unmoving piece of driftwood in her bed, and I nodded, because father looked like he needed me to understand. And after he left I did sleep for a bit with Lelacey in the crook of my knees, but I woke up sometime before light when Lelacey started bristling and hissing, with Matilda standing over me all pale-faced and dead. I only came to the hospital a few times and I never got very close there was concern about a contagion, and I hadn’t had all my shots — but even then I never remembered her smelling like sulphur: just antiseptic and the lilies mother always brought. She was so pale, so sunken in. I wanted to hide but I knew if I pulled the covers over my head, she’d still be there, this dark amorphous blur behind the cotton.

“Go back to sleep,” I said, without looking at her.

“Nothing happens when I close my eyes.”

Grandpa was only with us for a week after he died, and he spent most of that time while he was waiting for Grandma in the big rocking chair — not rocking, really, just resting his eyes like he said. I suppose he didn’t sleep since he could no longer wake. He didn’t go to bed and he didn’t try to eat, and he was fine. Quiet, yes, and faded, but in no distress. Matilda was confused.

“It’s okay. Just lie down and close your eyes. Mama and Papa’ll wake you up tomorrow.”

“Molly, I don’t feel sick anymore.”

“You re all better now, that s why.”

“Why is Lacey mad at me?”

I moved my hand down to pet her and Lelacey’s tabby back arched and her fur flared out like a mane. With three strokes she settled down again but she kept growling at Matilda from behind my legs with her ears flat against her head and her eyelids peeled back. I said I didn’t know why, but I wanted to say other things. That Lelacey didn’t like the dead, that Lelacey could smell the sulphur on her; that Lelacey wished she had gone straight on to Zurichia instead of lingering in our safehouse. But I had always been told to be kind to Matilda in whatever form she take: my sickly little sister, my parents’ princess, my little follower, my dead shadow.

Matilda lifted her finger and Lelacey crouched down deeper into the mattress. Thank God Matilda didn’t try to touch her, at least not then. Instead she went back to bed and she didn’t make the floorboards creak, although the sulphur stayed by my bed, and it burned my throat.

• • •

Micah was born during a Bleeder Storm, so father made sure the doors and windows were sealed up and mother had him in their bedroom, all over the cream-colored sheets. I was just barely old enough to help, but Matilda had not aged so she sat in the hallway outside with her pallid hands tucked between her legs. When I ran outside to put the kettle on she was staring at the slab of metal we covered the window with, listening to the Bleeders howling, their scratching on our house. I have always hated that sound but Matilda was dead. Maybe she understood what they were saying. I wear earplugs during Bleeder Storms, and I don’t try to pick out words.

When Micah first saw Matilda at the side of mother’s bed he cried and struggled in his swaddling cloths. He was repulsed and Matilda knew.

We found her standing over his cradle with her hair drooping over his face. She was watching him breathe, she said. She was watching the tears flow down his cheeks odd wet things that she only remembered now, and only vaguely. Micah was screaming bloody hell and father took Matilda away — she dripped all over his shoulders, her bulbous eyes lolling out of those sunken sockets to watch Micah twist up in fear. “But I wanna see him. Her voice had sunk with her eyes. Papa, I wanna see him.”

“Mother.”

She cooed to Micah, offering him her soft glowing face as a pacifier.

“What if Matilda’s a Bleeder?”

She looked up and stared at me in deep offense. “How can you say that about your own sister?”

“Just because she’s my sister doesn’t mean she might not turn into a Bleeder.”

I wonder now if I wanted her to be one, despite the danger. Because then they would have to ship her body to Zurichia, and the doppelganger that made our house perpetually funereal, sitting in corners like a cobweb, would have to leave too. I had made friends by then, and I no longer invited them over. Our house was a sideshow — it still had windows, and too many doors. And it had Matilda.

“Well,” said mother, tucking in her lips, “she’s not, and I know because I check her everyday, and she’s got no lesions. She’s absolutely fine. A beautiful little girl.” Those were things she said with tangible pride, with her eyes closed in blind faith. Like her mental stability rested upon their truth.

I had already said once, in a fit of childish rage, that she was ugly. I knew it, Micah knew it. Mother and father looked at her amphibious, clammy skin that pinched her bones and saw her chubby baby pictures. But there was such an uproar when I said it the first time that I wasn’t going to say it again. I hate uproar.

Matilda didn’t. Her body stayed small and skinny, but her tantrums grew volcanic. Sometimes she’d claw at father when he tried to put her to bed, and then he’d lean over the bathroom sink putting aloe on the welts so no one asked questions at work. It got bad enough that we couldn’t leave her alone in the house else she’d scream so continuously that the neighbors would think we really were harboring a Bleeder, and call the police.

“I hate you all!” she would spit, kicking and contorting into positions worthy of carnivals, because she felt no more pain. Her gums would peel back with her eyelids and she would thrash at us, she would flail. “I wanna leave! Let me leave! Open the door! Open the door!” I sat on the couch comforting mother, while father lunged at Matilda to grab her and straitjacket her, but one such winter evening she developed the wherewithal to melt out of his lumberjack arms and manifest herself in the opposite corner of the room, near the umbrella stand.

We were all shocked. When Grandpa waited for Grandma to die, he never flew anywhere, just sat in his rocking chair, creaking back and forth. It’s what made him a Benign, so far from a Bleeder — he was passive in death. But Matilda started to teleport.

She tried to use this new power to make her demands clear: dishes thrown at the bolted doors, the cabinets open and slammed, rattling the china inside. Sometimes she even threw herself against the exits of our house, but her body was not a body, as she had learned. It was a remainder. The leftovers of a life that was permanently gone. Like the gray dust that makes the clouds, she was just fall-out. She had a malleable form and now she would never be controlled again. After she threw dinnertime fits she’d fly up the stairs father would tuck the blankets around her only to find that she’d slipped through the mattress and box spring and was crawling out from under the bed. The only rule she couldn’t break was the one about leaving the house. That was the only wall she couldn’t walk through.

Sometimes at night I would wake up and she would be hanging from the ceiling looking down at me and Lelacey wrapped up like snails in wool and cotton. She never even pretended to sleep anymore.

“Molly I’m so lonely.” Even when she was sad her voice was like a growl. The voice of a bear coming out of a little girl. I could not see her eyes through her hair that dripped like seaweed. “You don’t love me anymore.”

I didn’t but I never told her that. It would have been cruel.

• • •

That was the season Lelacey died. Of course I knew: I knew when she wasn’t on my bed in the morning and her litter box was still clean. For about an hour I fit myself into the smallest crawl-spaces in our decrepit house hoping that she was just hiding. We were, after all, a house of hiders. Even Micah would roll under couches if we left him on the floor. So I screamed into the dark holes. It was down in the cellar that I found her limp little body, her fur cold and stiff as if in perpetual alarm. She must have been frightened. I could see the bruises around her neck, bruises that fit tiny, bony fingers. I touched her whiskers, I tapped her nose. We got her when I was very small — we found her wandering, a mewling kitten asking for a home. She had always been mine. She claimed me.

By the time I went back upstairs Lelacey had come back. She had appeared in the kitchen and was pawing at her food dish, making the most wretched and pitiful sounds. I looked at Matilda, who was sitting on the couch quite pleased with herself, and I finally started screaming: exhaustion of the lungs, drying out the voice box as I hollered terrible words: “I hate you!” (several times) “How dare you! You little brat! Why can’t you just be dead! Why won’t you go away!”

I didn’t scream for long. Reason was thrown at me. Lelacey was here, wasn’t she it wasn’t as though I had lost her for good, she was just changed.

Lelacey came out of the kitchen on rickety legs. Her eyes never used to be such a sickly yellow. I crouched down and called her: “Lelacey, Lelacey, come here, darling…” My cat’s disembodied spirit pulled back and hissed at me. And then she hobbled over to Matilda, who opened her arms and smiled, croaking, mocking, “Lelacey, Lelacey, come here, darling.”

• • •

For a while I tried not to come home. There was a boy at school, his name was David, and he lived on the other side of town, in a large modern house without doors or windows or chimneys, an impenetrable fortress of sleek metal. No Bleeders and no Benigns. His father worked for the Department of Postmortem Security, and I was too ashamed to tell them about Matilda. I hated walking home, no matter where I’d been. It was always that same road, the row of old sick houses with weak foundations, ready to collapse. It was like I could feel Matilda’s eyes boring into me through the walls of metal. I felt them everywhere. Even on sleepovers across town I would wake up with the feeling of little fingers pulling down my sleeping bag, getting lost in my hair, whispering: “Molly, Molly, come home and keep me company.”

I knew the neighbors whispered about the house at the end of the road with that dead little girl that s been there seven years now . The mailman asked me if my parents were all right; on All Hallow’s Eve little boys from the neighborhood threw stones at the windows and shouted at Matilda to show yourself. Father went after them with a shotgun but they would scatter into the shadows, laughing.

Who knows how David found out, but he found out. His parents had a talk with me about the dangers of keeping a spirit in a residential area and not shipping it to Zurichia on one of those huge reprocessed oil tankers. Didn’t I know it could go bad at any moment, they demanded. Research has shown that the likelihood of a Benign becoming a Bleeder is sixty, no, seventy percent greater if it’s confined to a house as opposed to when It’s roaming around in the deadzone. That s what David’s father called Zurichia. I guess the international committee thought Zurichia sounded nicer than the deadzone. More welcoming.

But what could I do? We were so much a family of hiders. Mother hid in the attic with her books, father hid in the den with his television. Most nights we said very little at the dinner table. We stared at our food and picked at it while Matilda rioted upstairs. And then we lay on our cold and lonely beds, waiting for the morning, while Matilda and Lelacey prowled the corridors. It was like we were the dead ones.

“She’s family,” I told David’s parents flatly. They concluded I was crazy and we weren’t to see each other again.

So I stayed home. Mother thought I was coming around — maybe I was. Father wanted me to keep an eye on Micah, because he was no longer scared of Matilda and actually seemed to favor her companionship. She was teaching him strange games demented versions of hide-and-seek and tag. Once we found him blue-faced, curled up in a tea chest covered with sheets he said that Matilda told him to hide there and wait for her to find him. We found her skulking around the attic with no intention of ever going back for him, but of course, she spit at us and disappeared.

Micah was the first to see the lesions. He told me — why does Sissy Matilda have those dark spots? — and then I started taking peeks at her. There was one under her dense tangled hair and one in the crook of her arm: bulging, dark red sores that spread with every tantrum Matilda threw. Every time her temper rose, the lesion would gobble up more of her pale porcelain skin. They looked infected, and painful. And even though there was no blood pumping her heart she was bleeding through those sores: out they came, little drops of pungent rage, dribbled on the carpet. I grabbed Micah and ran.

“Matilda’s a Bleeder.”

Mother and father were sitting in the living room when I told them, their faces as blank as the wall behind them. I refused to put Micah down. I had let Lelacey out of my hold and now she was dead and disfigured and spent her days howling in the basement where we buried her.

“She’s a Bleeder!” I shouted. “She has the lesions! I thought you were checking her!”

Micah put his hands to his ears and wrinkled his nose. Mother and father turned their heads slowly to look at each other.

“Are you listening to me?”

Mother sighed and bent her head father squeezed her hand. “We know, Molly,” he said to me. “But please. She’s not hurting anyone.”

“This isn t legal! She has to go! She wants to go!”

“No.” Mother was shaking her head. “No, she doesn t. She wants to stay. My baby wants to stay. And I want her to stay, and we all want her to stay, so why can’t she stay?” She had started to shriek then, and there was a dampness to her voice. She was about to cry. All her fretting and crying over Matilda had aged her. She had been young once; now her hair was made of straw. Father gathered her up into his arms and shushed her and said that of course Matilda could stay.

Mother looked at me from behind father’s shoulder. Her eyes were hesitant and defensive and quick to close, quick to break apart from mine. “Molly, she’d be all alone all cold and alone.”

I went back into the hallway to the sound of their sobbing, with Micah still clinging to me, resting on my jutting hip. Ours was a cement house – because it was built before the Department of Postmortem Security’s safety standards were passed into law — half its lighting was supposed to come from the sun. Our stringy electrical wiring didn’t make up for the loss although with the weather as it is and was, I suppose it wouldn’t have made a difference if our windows hadn’t been boarded up. But it meant that our hallways shrank and darkened into tunnels lit by sporadic torches, and the permeability of cement meant that sometimes we could feel moisture coming in through the walls, through the floor.

Matilda was in the hallway — sometimes I wonder if it was her lingering presence that cursed us. Sometimes the house’s weight followed her, like she was some kind of vortex of energy that the house groaned and shifted in order to obey and draw closer to. Maybe that was why the house was shrinking. Matilda was a black hole with her mouth wide open. I hurried past her, telling Micah not to look at her.

“I won’t hurt you, Molly.”

She followed us, floating down the hallway on her dirty tiptoes. I wanted, so badly, to leave, if only to sit in the yard and know that she could not haunt us there. Her fingers brushed the back of my shirt, like a twig in a wood. I turned around and screamed: “Get away from me!”

Her huge drowned eyes looked at me in want.

“Do you remember when we played astronauts?”

There was a playground nearby. We’d go at twilight on the clearest of days, when you can almost see the stars, and swing as high as possible for as long as possible, to make believe that we were in space shuttles orbiting distant planets. Repairing the craft required crossing the monkey bars. Re-entry required the slide. When the wind was high we called it turbulence, a word we’d never experienced.

“I wanna do that again.” Another sore was blossoming at her hairline, tiny tentacles of rippling magenta stretched across her temple, itching, yearning, hating. I had nothing to say but Matilda sighed and dissolved of her own accord.

• • •

There was only an hour left of light when I zipped up Micah’s jacket and pulled his hat down so it covered his ears. He had never been to the playground. Micah’s time on the outside was really only within the straps and buckles of the car seat that mother and father still tied him to, even though he had gotten too big for it.

I guess it was Matilda, forever frozen at swing set age, that reminded me.

“Where are we goin?” asked Micah, dragging on my hand. The sidewalks were covered with scraggly, serpentine weeds, so we walked on the road, beside the gutters clogged with debris. The houses here were bare and empty. There was no traffic likely.

“To the moon,” I said.

The playground was smaller than I remembered. It was part of a neighborhood park, built into an enclave of old trees and marked with wood chips. The light was dimming our timing was perfect. I glanced down at Micah. He looked reluctant.

“Haven’t you ever wanted to go to the moon?”

“No.”

“Oh, come on. It’ll be fun. We’ll just take a little trip around the world. You just keep your eyes on the sky.”

I got him on the swing and he clenched the little metal chains so hard that his hands would be bleeding if it weren’t for his gloves. He was so afraid when I started to push he didn’t like being catapulted forward, although he only went a few feet at first but when he felt my hands on his back and realized he was always falling back toward me he relaxed. I heard the beginnings of his childish high — the surprised giggle, the lean-forward, the kicking swimmer’s legs. I pushed harder, pushed him higher. The air was searing. It was almost clean.

And yes, I wished Matilda was there.

Then the storm sirens began. From there we couldn’t see the radio tower but even Micah was old enough to know that the sirens meant nothing but the worst. He was in the midst of flight when they began and when he came back for another push I did push him, because for the first few seconds I didn’t believe the alarm. All it took was a rustling of the oaks that hugged the playground. I grabbed Micah off the swing and ran with him in my arms.

“Molly!” he started screaming. We were on the road. My footsteps hit my ribs like punches. I was looking nowhere but ahead.

“Don’t look!”

The route took forever. Hedges moved and so did branches I stayed dead center on the winding two-lane streets because hands more twisted and gnarly than Matilda’s were reaching up through the gutters, sloughing aside the mud and leaf-dust. Then I hated the fading light. Micah was crying. I didn’t have the lung capacity to tell him we were almost there. When I slammed my fist on our heavy bolted door I looked back for one brief sweep and saw the Bleeders swarming over roofs. It is their world, more and more. Not just the rebellious Bleeders but the legions and legions of Benigns. When Zurichia is full they will need another vacant continent.

Father was furious. He checked the door bolts twice and said we could have died. Mother was in the kitchen doorway, cradling the cold wall dark Matilda was in the middle of the hallway, staring up at the ceiling and stretching her neck back so far her head should have come loose. The awful scratching howls hit the door when he was still up against it and he jumped back as if shocked.

Mother cried out and extended her arms toward us, her babies, and after we moved toward her and she took us in she began to pray. We each had our pendants hanging round our necks — me and Micah and Matilda. It was all that linked us now, while the house began to shake and mother s appeals to the saints was buried in the avalanche of sound that was the roaring Bleeder storm. Father watched the ceiling while they trampled it, watching as family photographs hanging from nails jostled under the weight of the stampede. I don’t know why we felt unsafe that time, why mother hugged us as if the end had come. Could we smell it in the air? Did we know?

The first thing we heard was a crash, not of glass but something heavier, coming from the upstairs. Mother screamed, so Micah screamed.

“Maybe it’s that cat,” said father, but we all knew it wasn’t. Lelacey was no Bleeder. Lelacey was mourning herself in the basement.

What followed were the same sounds of a tempest locked in a cage that Matilda made when she was furious, amplified by three. Then we did hear glass shattering and unbreakable things hitting walls, and after one pressurized pop the sound of a geyser let loose.

“The bathroom,” I said. “The toilet. It came in through the toilet.”

It must have been the bathroom door that blew open, followed by an eruption of thousand-tongued curses, a fury so hollow that it sent shock waves up and down the upstairs corridor. We could hear the posts of the railing shaking and the wall paint peeling under ripping, scratching nails. Matilda’s eyes followed its sound as it ricocheted from room to room above us, dislodging all evidence of life it could find.

“It’s in the house.”

Father went to the hall closet and took up his titanium bat, muttering to himself. He was giving it a few habdash practice swings when mother dragged us children over the mosaic-tiled kitchen floor and under the table, the white tablecloth brushing our heads, and locked us into her huddle by her bony arms. “Shut your eyes, my babies, shut your eyes. They won’t take any of you away from me.” Mother did shut her eyes, fiercely, and so did Micah, but Matilda and I were looking at each other. I saw her slip away from mother’s embrace. In another blink her tiny weightless form, wracked with disease even now after death, had seeped out of the kitchen.

“Matilda! Matilda!”

I was shoved out from under the table to bring her back. But the hallway was so broken it was scarcely recognizable — father was chasing the invasive Bleeder with the like a maniac, his bat smashing walls most of the time. I thought I was in an earthquake. I thought I was dying. Cement was flying like hail and the walls were spattered with blood, the Bleeder’s and father’s. I fell. I stepped on broken glass. I covered my ears to keep the Bleeder’s words out of my head. Most of all I tried not to look at it. It was so grossly deformed. A walking, flying corpse, a lesion in and of itself, with all traces of humanity lost to its hate and rage. I stumbled up the stairs on hands and knees, cross-eyed because something hard and crumbly hit the back of my head. There were repeated booms against the bolted window at the top of the stairs; the corridor leading off to our bedrooms was filled with strips of plaster and cinderblock dust. Like our house had been stripped down to its skeletal remains.

And there, Matilda, in the bathroom. Suddenly gentle and small: a baby sister. Standing next to the toilet whose lid had been blown off when the Bleeder climbed out of it, looking down into the bowl stained blue. The bathroom, lined with shards of glass, was a house of mirrors, and Matilda was already on the other side. Another lesion was growing, this one on her hand. She knew it was there. She knew what would happen.

“I have to go get better,” she whispered. I barely heard her I saw her filmy lips moving. She must have been trying not to howl, afraid her voice would sound like the banshee father was fighting. “I can’t stay any longer.”

I leaned my head against the splintered eave of the bathroom door with my legs falling out from underneath me. “I’m sorry, Matilda.”

“I’m going now.”

I thought I heard gurgling coming from the pipes. The sudden thought of Matilda, dead and crystallized at age seven, in a world where houses turned her away and Bleeders hid in gutters waiting for enough numbers to gather, assaulted me and I did want to hold her down and shut her in her room for safe-keeping but I was sitting by then. Couldn’t bring myself to stand but just watched her.

“Go to Zurichia,” I said, “It’s safe there. Grandma and Grandpa are there, they’ll—”

She dove in. There was a splash. She could fit because her body wasn’t a body.

“Matilda — Matilda…”

By the time father chased the Bleeder up the stairs and back to where it came from I was lying on the mess of medicine and soap bottles on the bathroom floor with my eyes closed. I heard it, like a high-altitude plane passing over, a mix of a whine and a roar followed by father’s footsteps and his unintelligible yelling. Once the thing was back in the sewage system he took a sheet of metal and hammered it onto the toilet, without thinking, feverishly saying, “keep safe, keep safe, protect the safety of the interior…”

“Matilda’s gone,” I said, and sighed.

I expected tears. I expected father to go running out into the Bleeder Storm to find her. Instead we sat at the dinner table, the four of us, listening to the quiet hum of our own breathing and the sudden silence between our ears. The walls of our broken house groaning. We didn’t make the place stand much longer.

I wonder if she made it. But I think she did. I hope.

 

 

Nadia Bulkin is a political science major at Barnard College. This consumes her life, but speculative writing is an unbreakable habit she maintains. She studies violence and power from the constructivist perspective, and listens to alternative rock too loudly on her headphones. She doesn’t kill bugs, and has a tabby cat back home in Nebraska. Vist her online at nadiabulkin.wordpress.com


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ISSUE #17

April 2008

FICTION