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In the Otherwise Dark

by E. Catherine Tobler

2598 words
Listen to this story, narrated by Dean Smith-Richard

The earlier it happens, the better. If, in infancy, a child can focus its young eyes upon the apparition, one has a chance of keeping the vision one’s entire life. If the lack extends into young adulthood, the ability is, in ninety percent of cases, lost.

I was one of the fortunate few — one who saw early, with startling clarity, and held to the image, even though others told me I was certainly insane. Even my own father shook his head and despaired when I spent hours staring at what seemed to him only a wall. But I saw, there in the shadows, my mother’s own face, smiling and gentle. It was her hand that calmed me in the night, her cool kiss upon my brow that sent me back to sleep. Such a strange child, my father always said; wakes himself in a screaming terror only to calm himself back to sleep.

Many children in my ward do the same, often abandoned by their parents as they struggle to see the apparitions. Many parents — many fathers, let us be blunt — cannot handle the attempts their child makes to see, to hear, that which they cannot. These fathers do not have the sight and do not understand how, especially in those so young — how could infants display such a need? It was, of course, generally impossible to explain, when they themselves did not (could not) see. It was harder with older patients — those, far too often, are filed under schizophrenic, and are never seen again.

Dom Dickinson is nineteen and has led the ideal life, beyond what he calls “the most tragic incident” he has ever known. His mother was lost to him when he was eleven — she only thirty-one years old, herself. Up until then, it was picnics and bike rides and lazy outings to the lake, where they — he and his mother, mind — would drift whole afternoons away, under clear blue skies. They enjoyed strawberries together, and how she held the back of his bike as he learned to ride without training wheels.

The afternoon she was lost to him was a November; he hates Novembers to this day, cannot explain in a way his father will understand. His father never shared the loss — his wife had gone long, long ago, he was fond of saying — eleven years prior, if he’s feeling specific. But Dom remembers a longer life with his mother, a life of adventures and dreams, until November took that away. After, life became a series of gray days; of adventures tucked into trunks and boxes and stored in the attic. Of outings with his father, surely, but Dom found little joy in fishing, shooting, or riding; he always looked for his mother, even when his father told him to stop, that no such person existed.

Adam Dickinson is forty-one, an accomplished investment banker. He tends to large accounts — celebrity accounts, he calls them, though cannot be specific in who he manages. He is fond of saying some things should be kept secret and out of sight. He feels this way about Dom’s mother — will not even speak her name when pressed. No, he says; Dom was a blessing upon my life, and I cannot explain it otherwise. There was no one he knew as “wife,” nor will he admit to “mother.” What of his own mother, though? When asked, Adam looks momentarily confused — there is biology to account for, after all. How does one procreate if there is no —

No. Adam will stop me there. His brow will crease and he will look away. When he finally looks up at me, his eyes are filled with a deeper confusion. We cannot know our place in the heavens, he eventually says. Where is the sun? How can we know? This world is constantly falling through the heavens — we have no fixed place, and I see no one.

But once, I think, you did.

• • •

I find my mother at the lakeshore come lunchtime. She has packed her own lunch for forty years, and I have taken after her, always including a treat, even though I should be far beyond treats. It’s the way some things are done. I sit beside her on the bench and she’s mid-bite into her sandwich. Although we have lunch every day, she startles and laughs, and her tomato slips from her finely constructed sandwich, into her lap. She sighs my name, but is still laughing as she digs a paper napkin from her brown lunch sack.

The afternoon sun catches in the fine strands of her hair and I can see how the dark cloud of it is beginning to go silver. It’s like she’s a storm cloud with a fine silver lining beginning to emerge. I wonder how long it has been so — if I have noticed before and just didn’t see.

I stare so long she nudges me, and I blink. “Octavia,” I say, wanting to imprint her name into my mouth. Wanting to not forget this moment, this sliver of silver in the otherwise dark. I am afraid to become as they are, to forget what I absolutely know.

She nudges me again. “Don’t sass your mother — you call me momma, remember.”

• • •

John Clarke is eighty-seven, quick to tell you he’s a widower even as this fact is largely disregarded. But you have no children, Mr. Clarke, the other doctors are fond of reminding him; surely if you’d had a wife, you would have children, Mr. Clarke. John folds himself into his bed at that, drawing his thin knees to his thin chest. Like many in the ward, he is here because he struggles in the wasteland between seeing and unseeing.

Nancy visits him every day — stands outside his door, because it is barred to all but doctors. Her visits are something John no longer admits aloud — but I have seen him have entire conversations with her — have seen the way she smooths down the cowlick in his silver hair though she cannot touch him through the glass window. We never had children, he says to her, and she shakes her head. We never could, she replies, and his hands tremble until her own calm them. He draws in a breath and pulls away, only to touch her glass-reflected cheeks, shoulders, and the outline of her shadow on the floor. The orderlies find the outline in the morning — it looks like a body outlined in dust and they wonder if Mr. Clarke has marked the space of his own death.

When I find him three days later, motionless upon the floor within that hasty frame, he’s clutching a monogrammed handkerchief edged in lace. I fold it into my pocket, away so the world will not see, will not question.

• • •

My earliest memory of my mother is hard to pinpoint — timewise. I remember her leaning over my bed — perhaps my crib? — and her necklace spooling out of her blouse. It dangled above me, twisting and glinting in the sunlight. That was summer, I remember her telling me once, summer and I was a wee thing, but long, like a bean she had plucked from the garden. Her little bean, she called me, and her necklace, a small golden bean, a gift from my father.

Impossible, some whisper.

No, that was what she said — a gift from my father on the birth of their first child.

First — so there were others? There is proof of — a constant and continued contact? A — relationship?

There was another — a sister, but she —

• • •

Sparrow is twenty-seven, brought to my ward after — the official report says — nearly overdosing on ecstasy. He was screaming for Molly, the drug they all assured me, but in the small hours of the night, she appears.

Molly is not quite as thin as Sparrow, her body not ravaged by drugs or abuse. I would say she is getting rounder, is with child, but I don’t know. This is no hospital for such tests — nor are many these days, I suppose. How can one treat what one cannot see? Sparrow lifts his hands to the window of his observation cell, while Molly presses hers against the glass. Sparrow shudders and shrieks — spittle flies from his mouth and he shakes in his skin, shakes until Molly hushes him and says everything’s gonna be all right. But he doesn’t believe her.

Can’t be, can’t be, can’t be, he says, until the two words flow like a litany from him. Never gonna, never gonna, never gonna, he adds, and then Sparrow is on his feet, moving in circles to keep Molly out of his line of vision. He smears the window glass with tongue and fingers until she blurs, but she’s still there, swimming at the edges, screaming his name, telling him to come down. It’s just the ecstasy, Sparrow tells himself — it’s just the drug making him dizzy and sick — and though I’ve tried to tell him, he won’t believe he’s been clean for three weeks. There’s nothing foreign or addictive in his system, nothing at all; when I tell Molly, she nods and she doesn’t come back — and I wonder if that’s my mistake. Telling her she’s not in Sparrow’s blood — even as she is. But it’s Sparrow who won’t see — or who will see, and cannot handle the reality of her moving through his world. He doesn’t need her; he’s fine on his own, fine.

Until he’s not.

• • •

My sister lived twelve hours, long enough for me to press my face against the incubator and say goodbye alongside my parents. She was so small — too small and too early and it was no one’s fault, they said. The Women’s Hospital was a strange place — a place most people did not go (could not go, for they do not even acknowledge its proud roofline), but for those who did, the care was the best in the city.

I was born there — though repeating this now earns me scowls and hurried changes in conversation. My sister though, begins to earn me the same thing; stories about her make people uncomfortable, because there is paperwork, names and seals and there is a recoded history of her that no one can — or wants — to explain. There is an image captured on film; there is a blue imprint of her impossibly small hand, every fingerprint a work of art.

Memories are mine alone — the way she was light, like feathers wrapped in that soft blanket — but these records are there for anyone to see. She did exist — and even my father did know her, love her, hold her. I tell myself this often — that he knew her, that he named her Sara for his own mother — I turn these things over between my long fingers the way I do the golden bean that was once my mother’s.



• • •

Simon Taylor is approaching four years old. Normally, they do not bring patients so young, but Simon, they say, is something remarkable. He is like no four-year-old before him, not in the way he moves and not in the way he speaks. Simon makes them so uneasy, he is restricted to an otherwise empty ward, and they refuse to explain why. They give me his paperwork and it also does not explain. I have to see for myself, they say, and then rush away in a variety of horrified expressions.

Simon appears normal and pleased to see me, because I alone enter his room and sit on the bed opposite his own. I do not stare at him in horror and don’t recoil when his small, cool hands touch my own. He wants to know what the papers say about him, and I tell him the papers say nothing. No one will tell me, I say, and Simon laughs. All right then, he says.

It’s some weeks before I see on my own — how Simon can close his eyes and show a person every woman they have known. It is a flood of memory, something no other should have access to, but in Simon’s cheerful presence, I am reminded of my first love, Esme; of my last love, Jeanne; of my aunts, Willa and Thea and Mae. And of my mother — my mother who Simon is surprised to discover I share lunch with every day.

His lips part — he cannot believe that I believe — and he sinks upon the bed as if exhausted. He stares at me the way doctors have stared at him and then he exhales.

So I’m not —

Not what, I prompt.

Crazy. They exist. They —


And Simon cries like he’s never cried before — still four years old in his heart and bones — and maybe, I think, he has not.

• • •

Roger Nalar is seventy. He likes to keep to his room, but sometimes ventures into the outside world — sometimes goes so far as to wander to the river. The orderlies worry about him, but I know he won’t go into the water. Water terrifies him, for it brings portions of the world into painful focus. My mother did love to swim — was on the school team, and though she never won a trophy it never kept her from the water. But he’ll sit on the bench, the same bench where my mother and I lunch, and he’ll worry his fingers over the wood. So much worry, he’s beginning to make a small groove in the seat.

He looks up at me today and his mouth splits in a sudden smile. He can’t believe I’m here — I’m still working at the hospital? Still and still, I say, and his arm circles my shoulders warmly. His arm feels so thin — and light, the way Sarah felt light when I held her. He is growing hollow, and thin, and in the corner of his eye, I see the tumbling river.

I draw the necklace from my pocket, unsure what I mean to do with it. It coils in my palm, glinting in the afternoon sun the way it did long ago around my mother’s neck. A gift from your father, she told me, a magical bean I want you carry now, so you will always know — that once, he remembered; that once, he saw.

Now, I hold my hand out and my father looks down. There are tears in his eyes and I cannot tell if he sees the necklace or not; he looks to the river path, where my mother approaches. I want to wave to her, I want to tell her to join us, but I am frozen. Does he see her? Does he — He sits rail-straight, color having drained from his cheeks. Then, he looks away.

My mother sits to my other side, and I close her necklace into my hand. Why do these women vanish from the world — I cannot yet explain it. It is not something within them, I think, but something within the rest of the world — within the way the light slants and changes a person’s perspective. If I could alter the world’s perceptions, I would be a rich man, indeed, but it is not for wealth, and not for —

The necklace slips from my hand to spool into the grass and without thinking, my father bends to pick it up. He is old, but still flexible, still capable of growth and change and when he straightens, he does not return the necklace to me, but reaches beyond me — beyond me, to place the necklace, without err, into my mother’s palm.

E. Catherine Tobler has passed invisibly among members of the opposite sex for many years now. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Sturgeon Award ballot. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website, ecatherine.com.

Issue 28

October 2016

3LBE 328

Front & Back cover art by Rew X