Danny, wake up. Danny, wake up.
Her steps are silent, her raspy whispers hushed by the hospital’s scattering noise, yet I feel the approach building before those feet hit the hallway. My body senses her, the way your neck senses the sun clearing a cloud or your eyes catch movement down a nighttime street. Forget rolling over. My back becomes an arrow and I face the window, watching for nocturnal birds, willing dawn to arrive. Minutes grow fat while I impersonate a corpse, wondering why she calls me that, why Daniel turns to Danny at night.
Danny, it is time to wake up.
God, she’s close, metres from the door, then inches from my neck. Sweat cuts my pajamas into pinstripes. A machine erupts and bleeps fill the hall. All I hear is noise. All I feel is heat. For a moment, the mind debates ordering the body to continue feigning sleep. There are no hidden plays here. No response and Emma taps her slippers, adjusts her white wig and turns, inches back down the hall.
Time is running out. My conscience wrestles with this image before pinning it down. Husbands are supposed to be there for their wives, even old husbands with older wives. Nursing homes shouldn’t change that. So, propelled by guilt, I roll over and, with heavy limbs, push my torso towards the border of the bed.
“Emma?” I whisper, wondering if she has, in fact, gone to bed and whether I’m allowed to be relieved. “Darling, you there?”
My lips are still flapping when I catch the soft patter of feet circling behind. Emma’s habits and inclinations are, by now, graffitied onto the walls of my mind. She likes chocolates so dark they’re almost black, with soft insides that leak out like mud. She likes yellow flowers, but only in the winter, and never roses. She eats her cereal dry, chasing it with orange juice. I know these things, so I know why Emma has come tonight: a story.
But this wrinkled brain is dried and dusted. In the morning, I sometimes forget how to part my hair, 83 years of practice be damned. Lunches are marathons, chewing a workout. Even walking to the bathroom taxes my stamina, (never mind melding plot, characters and climax. When I was 22, Emma called my mind “an embarrassment of riches.” I guess inflation ran high.)*
The bed shakes as her hips flop over the railing. The backs of both knees dampen. My toes curl. Eyes closed, I envision the bony caterpillar of her spine wiggling towards me. Radiotherapy has shrunk Emma to 90 pounds, but her presence still strikes like a burning fist. But the time for complaining has passed. Fifty years makes me complicit, or worse. So I take a deep breath, exhale frustration through both nostrils, and roll back over. The light is almost blinding.
On good days the fog clears enough to remember that first story I told her. I was 19, she 25, and we had just started dating. Or at least that’s what we called it – really it was more owner-and-pet than any union of equals. Her face was smooth and fragile, with apple blossom cheeks. My nose could’ve filled a hot dog bun. So, yes, I worshipped her with a devotion void of pride.
And she was beautiful. Emma had this white-blonde hair that framed a child-like face, and eyes so green it hurt sometimes to look at them, like staring at the winter sun. Small-boned and delicate, she was the type of woman who’d still look 13 when her body was rounding 30. Who could blame me when, three months in, I was already deep into love? Spooning in the back of a rusted half-tonne, letting the summer sky press us flat, I was staggered by her radiance. Gold oozed from her pores, leaking out like my nervous sweat.
She shone and I liked her. Hell, everybody liked her. Emma was born immune to the pettiness and arrogance of our species. And it was right then, as I contemplated the fragile face poking out beneath the stained leather of my high school jacket, that Emma made her first request.
“Give me a story,” she whispered, eyes closed. She’d come from work. I could smell kitchen grease on her clothes. “Tell me anything. Make something up if you have to. I don’t really care, just tell me a story.”
So I did. I told her about my mother, Jamie, who was then called Ruby and worked the trapeze for Barnum’s Travelling Circus. I stroked Emma’s cheek and described how, 30 years before, Ruby’s train came to a grinding and unscheduled halt just outside of Bentley, Alberta. With the engine wearing a sweater of smoke and repair parts days away, the show master figured there was nothing to do but raise the tents, send out runners and see what materialized.
Turns out, interest wasn’t a problem. Eager for a break from the fields and seduced by promises of novel entertainment, half the county streamed in, paying a quarter each to venture into Barnum’s platoon of candy-striped tents.
Shock and awe rumbled out from the makeshift city. People said that circus had everything: bearded women, wild men, midgets, giants, flame eaters, snake charmers, elephants, lions and bears.
It all sounds unimpressive now. But lying in the truck bed, I went giddy describing how Dad was searching madly for the bearded lady when he stumbled into the main tent. Confused and overwhelmed, my 20-year-old father saw 200 necks bent backwards, so he looked up. And up. And up. They said Barnum’s big tent was so tall that clouds gathered at the top. Sometimes they even cancelled shows because of rain.
And then, when the fog finally cleared, he spotted her, my mother, on the top platform, high among the clouds. She was dressed in a studded red-and-white jumpsuit. My father squinted. Ruby looked tiny, beautiful.
Voice rising, hands puncturing the night, I told Emma to picture how mother jumped, how the earth went silent as she caught the first bar, spun and soared back into the air. Bar after bar, Ruby flung about the tent, moving higher and higher, faster and faster.
Until something slipped. The crowd screamed when my mother started falling, hands flailing in the air, still grasping for the missing metal. They shrieked louder when someone pointed out the bear pit directly below. Afraid to move, the mob pushed their feet against the floorboards, eagerly terrified to see what came next.
But my father had never been confused for a screamer. While the mob wept, my dad jumped from his seat, sprinted across the ring, pulled his lean body over the wall and fell into the deep pit. Immediately, a half-dozen of the great Kodiaks encircled him, all growl, claw and fang. The screams of the now blood-hungry crowd rose higher.
Dad didn’t panic. Even when a great snort knocked off his hat, he toed the ground and bit his fingernails, acting like a bored man waiting on a bus. Eventually someone shouted for him to run and he could have done it, could have raced death across the barley fields, but my father had never seen an acrobat before. So Dad bent and retrieved his hat. He straightened his tie.
Then, when the beasts’ claws could almost reach him, my father started singing. Softly at first, then louder. Just a homemade, half-mumbled Italian lullaby, but it worked. Somehow it worked. The bears’ bluster faded and the giants slowly fell asleep, one by one.
When the last creature was safely dreaming, my father piled their bodies on top of each other into a swaying, snoring tower. Up, up, up, he climbed, using fat as handle and fur as rope until, 30 feet above the ground, dad reached out and plucked his future wife from the air.
“Hello, my name is Ruby,” my mother said as Dad cradled her in his meaty, hair-covered arms.
“I think I love you. Please don’t be afraid.”
After that no words came to mind, so I stopped talking. Emma didn’t bother filling the silence. We lay in the truck with closed mouths, my body cocooned around her, listening to the coyotes howl. Dawn came and turned the sky into an aging bruise. When I woke, Emma’s face had turned to chalk and had the shallow look of death. I wasn’t gentle when I shook her.
Wake up, Emma. Wake up.
It’s alright, Daniel. It’s fine,” she said, eyes still closed, face still ashen. “Everything’s fine. I’m not glowing. The sky just changed colour as you slept. It is perfectly like you to not notice these details.” I believed her. Everyone knew that Emma was smarter than I was.
We met again at a cocktail party. Years had passed. Her face had grown tired and her hair long, but in a crowd of black-suited lawyers there was no missing Emma. She was still beautiful, still fragile, still glowed. Almost 10 years had dripped away since the night I’d drank straight gin and emerged with only one thought alive: independence. Time, I was certain, had been harder on me.
Looking back, the party didn’t so much progress hour-by-hour as occur all at once. Emma floats through the room while I apologize for ever drinking. The two of us crouch by the bar, laughing the dist off memories while we skip down the stairs and into my yellow Buick. Kissing Emma overlaps with whispering, “Good morning” into her bellybutton eight hours later. Maybe these events occurred separately and in some logical order. Maybe, but I don’t remember it that way.
What I do recall came the morning after. We were lying together in a post-sex haze, limbs intertwined like seaweed. In the room’s bright light, my walls looked the colour of bone and the sheets shimmered with reflecting sweat. The heat was too intense to think. One of us had to be brave.
“Emma, I don’t want to ruin the reunion but I’ve got to ask something,” I said meekly, dragging my big toe along her calf. “If you don’t want to tell me, I’ll understand, but . . . why do you always glow?”
For 10 minutes, she didn’t speak. We nearly choked on the silence. Then, propping herself on one elbow, the blonde carpet of her hair tumbling over one eye, she said the doctors couldn’t decide where the light came from. She’d just got it from her mother, who’d got it from her mother, and so on. The glow only became a problem at night, when it changed from an attractive inner sheen to warm, visible light. Emma said it grew stronger in winter, in moments of passion and when she wore polyester.
We made omelets and ate them in bed. My fingers tickled her back while she described the light evolving through puberty before really exploding during law school. There was pain. Emma talked about teachers who couldn’t understand, about friends who mocked her and about frightened boyfriends who pulled away. I kissed her bellybutton to stop her from crying. She had always felt alone, with despair tagging along like an imaginary friend. Then Emma asked for help. She asked for stories.
“It’s the distraction,” she said. “I know it sounds strange, but I think the light likes narratives. It gets caught up in them and sort of just forgets to shine. Or maybe I just forget. Either way, when that happens it’s always easier to sleep, easier to think, easier to focus. Everything feels softer in shadows.”
So I made up stories – how could I not? I fashioned elaborate tales of knights and tragic ones about martyred poets. I dabbled in reality and fantasy, science fiction and horror. When I was sad, the hero failed. When I was mad, an ungrateful heroine lost her life. Our marriage slept in a bed of adventure. Or, at least, it did at first.
I’ve read somewhere that Picasso never ran dry, that other artists envied the great man’s endless well of energy and inspiration. They mocked and adored how he absorbed ideas until they felt like his own. A genius. A virus. Even his quiet years, the ones spent toying with pornographic paintings and copperplate etchings, were fruitful. But I am Dan Kirk, not Pablo Picasso, and one night Dan’s well ran out of water.
We were eight years in, chatting overpriced three-bedroom loft, when the left side of my brain began to mutiny. I was not Hercules capturing the Erythmanthan Boar; I was not Moses parting the Red Sea. Neither gods nor God were on my side and this mortal mind needed relief. And then it came to me, as crisply and clearly as my two-syllable name: steal a story. It's the sleep of reason, Goya wrote, that brings forth monsters.
So I did it. Without hesitation, without a hint of moral quandary, I leaned back and fumbled around the nightstand. My fingers grazed mother’s old copy of Aesop’s Fables and peace unfolded before my eyes. I began memorizing stories during bathroom breaks. I spent beer money purchasing pocket-sized children’s books. Dinners were my cram sessions and each bedtime my final exam.
But Eden never lasts. Peace ended the moment Emma felt the sharp flick of a turning page. As the muscles in her back tensed, I remember wondering whether she’d finally gotten around to repainting our eggshell walls. Then a wave of hot light exploded. Emma’s screams pierced the air and punched the windows. Even with both eyes closed, the light burned, so I buried my face between the sheets. Her words cut like kitchen knives, her heat blistered my wrists.
“You’re reading? You’re fucking reading?” she screamed. “You sit there, snuggled against me, telling me that you’re making things up as I thank God and you, you, you fake it? I mean a goddamn book? Don’t you think that I know how to read? Am I really that stupid? You, you liar. You ignorant, stupid little liar.”
Why do people ask so many rhetorical questions when they’re angry? It becomes so much harder to apologize.
In hindsight, I should have been smarter. Science predicted that the brain’s synapses would slacken and eventually I’d even start forgetting the events of my own life. We could have tried training her to rely on television or recorded my best musings onto audiotape. But it's too late for that now, and tomorrow it will be later.
My brain flickers in and out of memory. But Emma wants stories so, eyes closed, I try calling the memories home, but now they dawdle and disobey. I’ve become all vegetables and no meat, getting place and theme right, but usually watching crucial details skip away. Most days I feel naked, wearing glasses in the shower.
Even the few adventures this mind still holds have devolved into worthlessness, devaluing like a collapsed currency. As memory faded, the urge to repeat those stories I recalled became overpowering. I began telling tales to children and seniors and strangers, beating the entertainment from every sentence. By now, Emma could probably recite these stories by heart.
It’s sad, what life becomes. Where I was young, I was riding in my father’s car when an old cowboy came on the radio. He had this rough, sandpaper voice that scratched its way through the speakers, spoken with the tone of a man rarely surprised. Or he did until about halfway through the program, when someone asked the cowboy exactly when he’d realized that his life was finished.
The radio fell silent. When the cowboy spoke, his voice had turned to bread dough. He took a breath. He spoke simply. He spoke clearly. It seems there was a wilderness, and then there was no wilderness. The world changed quickly. There were animals, then settlers, then towns, then railways. The cowboy kept escaping. He moved west, and then west again until finally reaching the Pacific Ocean. Staring at a continent of water, the cowboy knew the race was over. He figured he had lost.
“There was nowhere left to go or I would have ridden there,” he growled. “That world was gone forever, no matter what they tell you, no matter how badly everyone suddenly wants it back.”
That’s kind of how life is now – nowhere to run. This old building is full of cowboys but the frontier has vanished. So, resigned to fate, I brush aside Emma’s wig, press my lips against that smooth scalp and explain that there is no story tonight. I tell her the vault is empty and the book is lost. I say that I am sorry.
“Tell me about the moment you decided to marry me,” my wife replies. “That’s such a soothing story.”
I bet it was. It was probably a magical tale filled with vivid details and a colourful, unexpected climax. I bet the words weaved together with energy and charm, told through a voice dripping with emotion. But I’ve learned lessons about lying, so I draw a deep breath and tell Emma exactly what I still recall, which is nothing.
“I don’t remember,” my mouth slowly admits. “Who really remembers such dates anymore? One day you were not there, the next your voice was the conscience inside my head. One day I was a boy who had never met you, the next I was a man and we were in love. Those moments are held apart by nothing but light and air.”
She goes quiet. There is nothing to add, so we soak up the silence, mouths closed, her body cocooned around me. The wet fabric of my pajamas cools my skin. Eventually, Emma giggles and tells me that, no offence, but she liked last night’s story better. Laughing, I admit that I would too, if only this ungrateful brain could remember it. We start talking of coffee and Christmas and other words that sound nothing like radiation or cancer.
She’s humming 1960s show tunes as I fall asleep. Melodies will distract her until the nurses make the 2 a.m. rounds. Without my stories, Emma will probably stay up most the night, crooning to the walls, waltzing from the mattress.
Sing, dear darling. Sing until they carve the tumours from your throat.
The sky is charcoal outside my window. Staring into blackness, I want to whisper that it’ll be okay, that I’ll remember better words tomorrow. But my body is already surrendering. The heat washes over me, and I fall asleep wondering if death will claim me before it takes Emma. I wonder if her light will turn blue and the snow melt in rivers at my funeral. Or if, even in death, Emma never burns out and whether, one day, worshipers lay trinkets and prayer boxes above her glowing grave. I wonder if they will bury us atop each other so I rest warm inside my coffin.
Tom McMillan is a freelance writer living in Ottawa, Canada. His work has been published in newspapers across Canada, including the National Post, Edmonton Journal,Victoria Times Colonist, Regina Leader-Post and the Waterloo Region Record. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from Carleton University in 2008.
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