The priest comes to the house to bless Beatrice, and I have to step out of the room the way I do when the hospice nurses come in to change her bedpan: I’m not allowed to be there. Not that I want to see that, but Beatrice cracks really funny jokes about bowel movements and gets them all riled up and laughing, and I can hear it when I put my ear up to the door. I’d at least like to be invited sometime, so I’d have the opportunity to try to commit everything she does to memory.
When the priest comes out I go in there and she says, “I lied.” I ask her about what, and she tells me that she told him her last confession was at church this morning.
“He looked at me funny like he didn’t believe me when I said that, so I added, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I put money in the collection basket and I remembered to wear my wig.’”
The first time I’d seen her without her hair I put my hand up to my mouth the way you do when something terrible has happened—I didn’t mean to, but I hadn’t been here like Mom every day, getting used to it strand by missing strand. They put a man’s toupee on her at first since that was the only thing they could find in town. We pretended all the mirrors in the house were missing even though she kept asking for one.
“Do you think it’s okay that I lied to the priest?” she asks.
“Beats me,” I say. “I think they prefer honesty, but I’m pretty sure you can be forgiven for that sort of thing.”
“Tell me about your day,” she says, which really means: tell me about what I wish I’d done today.
“I walked across a tightrope suspended between two buildings,” I start. “It was very perilous and I could have fallen, but I didn’t because I’m very good and brave. At one point, I looked down—”
“Oh god,” she says. “Even amateurs know not to do that. What else?”
“I also helped a tiger jump through a hoop of fire. His whiskers got scorched.”
“I hate it when that happens!” she says. “Tell me more about what’s going on with you.” This means I say the opposite of how I’m feeling even though I know she really wants to know the truth.
“Things are great and I’m really happy to be here,” I say.
The nurse comes in to change the catheter and I go out to walk down the hill to the river. In the late afternoon, the light does this thing on the water so you can actually see the salmon in there, swimming upstream to mate and build nests in the riverbed. They’re all scale-shed, pumpkin orange, exhausted by the time they’re done and ready to be washed up downstream, the reverse end of their reverse swim. I used to stand out there waiting to see their limp, dead, bodies drifting with the current because I didn’t believe Daddy when he first explained it. All I ever saw was them going powerfully backwards, alive.
I try to skip a rock in the river, but I’m no good at that anymore.
Later, I go back inside and we get her old jewelry box from the closet and put clip-on rhinestones in our ears and paint blue eye shadow on each other’s faces.
When it’s my turn she stops suddenly and looks right into my eyes. “You know something? I wish I had been as beautiful as you,” she says before she continues drawing something on my cheek—a butterfly? A star? with the crayoned-tip end of her eyebrow pencil. Had been. When did she start talking in the past tense? I had the overwhelming feeling then of realizing how much you’re going to miss the thing before it’s even gone. When she asks me what I did outside I say I parachuted down from the top of Mt. Rainier with a broken-winged bird.
“Oh, that’s a good one,” she says. “Really original.” Her right lid is smeared so darkly in indigo it looks like the edges of a bruised black eye. Did she remember about the salmon? About how they came home and had to watch each other die?
She gets tired and stops laughing so we flip through Mom’s magazines, nail polish bottles and compacts of rouge snapped shut like clam shells spread on the patchwork quilt all over her emaciated legs. Then all of a sudden she says really casually without even looking up, “I wish I still had hair so you could comb it.” Because that’s what I used to do for her when we were little girls. I go to put my hand up to my mouth, but stop myself.
Notes from Guest Reader Ashley Inguanta
A beautiful, magical piece about life and death and storytelling.