Night at last, the aunt thought--the child, at least for the moment, at rest, embraced by a dream or a stillness, or solely the empty repose of fatigue, and she herself relieved of a self-imposed duty--teller of
the story, huffer and puffer, and ever-questioned guardian, wolf in fair
clothing--until the child awoke.
It was close in the house. A tissue the aunt had nestled-- discretely,
she hoped--between her breasts (she felt it--the way that her breasts surely
fell--no infant nurse nor lifted gaze, no milk with which to sate a throat, to
plumpen, or rather, to deepen a leg crease, yet gravity received her, wooed her,
the aunt thought, as if in rebuke) it was softened, damp. She fingered it. Of
course, she did. No one was looking. Pink, this tissue. Pink, of course. She
knew without duly seeing the thing, as if sensing its color from under her
flesh, as if somehow the object had issed from blood, some mineral inheritance,
as if, perhaps, of Mother's iron taste, want--an inborn impulse--for Mother had
chosen only soporific hues--pump, blush, pale dress, a tissue tucked into a
willfully lovely and, most likely, woolly pocket. Seeping. Go on. Summon her.
Talc, breath, the dream of an effluvium.
This is Mother's room. Or rather, it had been.
Not much touched.
Still of night, dead of night, no way to make this night new. Night
notwithstanding--no siree!--it seemed to the aunt to be altogether closer than
Quiet, the aunt thought, seemed to swell.
She dabbed about her rutting brow.
It felt to her as if light of the day had heated the wood, the moldings,
tired appointments; as if, as well, it had saturated crevices, and darkened and
blackened, and fueled this house.
The aunt paced, wakeful. Room to room, here to here, noplace to go to,
nursing a friction under her feer (she walked in Mother's pinkish slippers,
lifted out of Mother's room--not quite hers--a loan, of sorts, for the
foreseeable duration: pricey and undeniably snug), arms to the ribcage, pulse in
the head, a bead she did not blot.
Father slept. Of course, he did. She could have foretold this. Asweat
in the chair, in recline, yet active, as if, the aunt thought, he could almost
simply be roused into discourse. Listen! Behold! The breath of the man, in
the middle of the night, obstructed and in-blown. She, the aunt, of course,
stopped. Attentive as ever, she stood at the foot of the chair with the
intention to hear and overhear him, nodded, uttered: "Sawing wood, he is," she
said, or some such overheard expression. (Ear to a doorknob, praying for
shrinkage, she had been a thoughtful, or at least, a conscientious child. Not
like some. Not, of course, to name a name. Not her! Why, no--look not to her
to be rattling mothballs.) "Listen," she said, addressing herself. Father
snored. Noisy, disruptive, loud, the aunt thought--but not enough to wake the
A flutter arose that the aunt could not suppress.
"Excuse," she said, to no response. Undoubtedly infectious--the air in
the palm of the hand.
She had coughed.
She had, in fact, made, as Mother would have judged it, a rather
entirely unladylike harrumph. This, the aunt thought, is the sound of a woman
awake in a house full of sleep--this plea or this apology rendered, submitted in
the night as if to someone all-knowingly present and alert.
Ring, the aunt thought, in her appraisal of Father.
Buds (But were they statice? Or iris? Or were they rightly lavendar?).
A sweetly lovely morsel.
Goblets to sip from (crystal--listen: the elegant timbre!).
A quite large tub.
Rebuffed parquet, and so forth.
Trappings (inviolet, fine)--the aunt had furnished Father's dreams
again, retrieved and replaced things, conceiving a vision the eye might fix.
These, of course, were not enough.
There were, to be certain, sheets.
A gauzy curtain, unflappable by wind or any plausible--or otherwise---
The silver, aglimmer and wrought.
Such patent wealth! Such impecable, the aunt thought, accoutrements as
might have been ordered by Mother--and yet there was unignorably this: The
walls plain shook. Soot entered and settled. The house was in a most, as
Mother had deemed it, ungenial location, abutting the tracks. "Such a shame,"
she had said. "Is it not?" she had said, insistent, recrossing and tucking her
The aunt, of late, could not but walk. She walked. Her arches had
fallen, her toes--pinched, damp--were ineffectively powdered. Chafing, she
walked, regarded the sleepers: James, Jim, Baby, the child, turned to his
mother--her sister, Elise--so undistressed, her arm flung, loose. Sleep was
what the aunt smelled; she made to inhale it. ("I'll huff and I'll puff," she
had said to the child, and what had he, in turn, done? Why, questioned her!
"What is a wolf? A chimney? What is straw?" It was as if, the aunt thought,
he had come up out of nowhere, carrying nothing--save, of course, the toy, which
was unquestionably missing--ragged, with a fever, not a shirt on the back,
unspoken for, apparently, and yet, the aunt was made to concede it, possessed,
in the brow, in the lip, in the rigid little mien, of certain indelible family
Elise, it appeared to the aunt, had been sleeping like a baby--out like
a light, a bump on a log, and so on--fancy that! Why, look at them! Sister,
nephew ("What is coal?" the child had asked, or rather, "What coal is?"--this
speech of his, the aunt thought, as if in translation, no?) languid, and ever
so faintly discerned: a tinge, a breath, just slightly dank, their contours
seeable vaguely, by way of a window, lit from without.
Heat, the aunt thought, had adhered to the night, expansive, diffuse,
and at odds with a rational person's ability (such as herself, for example) to
Reckless, the aunt thought, the way heat bloomed--grew? rose?--as if out
of the wood, and also, as well, from the child's flesh (undoubtedly red,
abraded, sight unseen notwithstanding); and also, it rankled below a lowered
breast--salt to a tissue, a robe too tight. Said garment, of course, had been
the property of Mother. Posture mattered--made or broke a fit. (Weight to the
flattest part of the skull was how the aunt had watched her step: book, leaf,
bound spine--"Up," said mother, "chin up, up"--scarcely a child, the aunt had
been, straightened, instructed, equipped, she had wrongly believed,
encyclopedically). Mother strode in lovely tones, prim-lipped, appropriate, a
bosom supported, comported unobtrusively, a rhyme before bedtime ("Here is the
church..."), treat in the hand: dainty and risen and floridly iced. "Here,"
said Mother. "Here, have some, have less."
There was always a napkin or doily. Additionally:
A peck on a cheek.
A doll on a shelf.
A pinkened spot--apparently lipstick.
She, the aunt, could guess her weight, her tutored, dependable, not-
faint tread. There was something quicker afoot than she.
"Again?" she said. Some being at work in the twill of a fabric, rot in
the molding--industrious, unpoisoned, the aunt thought, impervious to heat, or
even energized, and frenzied, in need. She, the aunt, continued on, unsettled.
Here again: reduced, revealed, and quick on the uptake. "Papa," she
says, replacing herself. So young she is! To curl--oh bliss!--in a lap; she
hears through the wall of a chest--a heart. Father. A resting place, but not
for long; strong arms shall raise her. Look: She is riding atop him; Father's
shoulder's muscled still; she moves at an angle, laughing (the aunt, not yet, of
course, the aunt, indisputably laughing) chin to an apex, ankle engaged, the
hand in no way yet infirm, a heat from the breath from within.
There is, as if unanswering a prayer, a smaller and daintier taken on
her, unjoyously witnessed. ("Here," said mother. "Here is the church and here
is the steeple, open the doors. I said, 'open the doors'.....")
Nothing suffices--fluid in the mouth, nor tongue; lip thinned and dry; a
lone hand, harsh wall, this house--so ill kept up!
The cough again, unstoppable.
The aunt was quite flushed.
There was something desired--some pure thing, she told herself, a drop,
a nip (a word she had gleaned while gleaning, tucked--a child and then some,
prone, blessed, infusable, and keen to absorb them--Father and Mother: smoke,
air, perfume, a chemical disbursement, teeth to the newly minted tongue.)
Milk, perhaps, could to the trick.
(Except, if the aunt recalled it correctly, the milk was all dried.)
Mother had served up coddled milk, or clotted cream, or steam, a bit of
cake. "Sleep," she had offered, the moral of the story, an end--dear children,
both in the pink, in the white of the bed, Elise, of course, smaller, and she,
on that count, smaller too--a chin not yet stubbled, a middle unthickened--
Mother, of course, alive again, hand to a forehead, palliative. "Mustn't," said
Mother, "snuffle on silk."
She the aunt, had heeded--inch upon inch, foot upon foot--respectful,
detached, and in the night, removed.
This was not her shabby cloth.
Sticks and such could break her bones, but this was not the aunt's
flesh, the aunt's blood, unseemly emissions soiling bedding.
Not her bed.
Nor would she lie here.
Bearing, the aunt thought, posture and habit--these were hers--a cough,
a hiccough (or rather, perhaps, to be thoroughly frank, a slight burp), a rare
For she had labored--ceaseless.
He, the child, James, Jim, Baby--imagine!--had begged to correct her, at
least in this: The house had no chimney, the child had said, nor even
furthermore a brick. ("Why three of them?" the child had said, as if he could
The breast lay unemptied.
The child lay stirring.
Elise plain slept.
And Father: By Father, the aunt stood tall--in thought, of course, as
was her wont. Stone, she thought. Why, yes, she thought, assessing him, stone,
in fact, glimmered, refractive, at least in the wake of a blown kiss, a last
wave--a ringed hand, bedazzling...receding.
Unshaken, the aunt thought.
In this she would not lie.