By James Peart
She was talking again, and I was suffered the wait engineered by the hiss and sigh of the respirator, and forced to endure that pleading look until the next crack of breath arrived and she could utter the spasm of words that sought to deny my peace of mind.
“I hope you can forgive me,” she said, her gaze travelling around the room, seeming to rest on each of us, leaving no one out, a democracy of action designed to equally distribute the payload of guilt. No doubt she achieved this, save when her eyes came to rest on my own, and her imploring regard met steel in my own, even when her next breath allowed a pulsing light to ribbon across her one good eye, and it bored into me with the kind, solemn entreaty of a much loved politician begging partisanship from a truculent member of her republic.
Others leaned toward her, fussed over her, imploring her in return, mouthing platitudes that sounded like chanted slogans: “Don’t be silly, Ruth,” “There’s nothing to forgive,” “We’re all with you.”
Her weakened fingers lifted from beneath the covers and spidered across the bed sheet, catching their hands in a woven gauze of sympathy. “I’m such a burden,” she croaked, and this moved me to want to utter confirmation of this conceited statement. “Yes, you are!” I would sing out in denial of the atmosphere that surrounded me, “and,” I would follow in a triumphant swoop, lifting the binding that covered everyone’s eyes, removing its silk-laced webbing in torn, fisted clutches, “you know it too.”
I first met her when she was already frail, as most of the people here had done. My wife’s cousin. “So frail,” they said. “She hasn’t long to go, and that a mercy in her condition.” And yet she had already survived her husband, and two others like him. One went down in the Crimea, a robust Sligo man named Patrick, the luckiest of the three, in the middle of one of her debilitating ‘spells,’ the first ones of a regular series the other two endured for the rest of their natural lives. Her second man, Henry, a man in his own way filled with a love for action, died erecting a Gazebo on their back lawn, slipping on a tube of polythene he’d attempted to roll down from the structure’s arch and striking his head on a garden stone, supervised on top of this landscaping masterpiece from Ruth’s bedroom window. Her subsequent shrieks, rising querulously into the night in a demented pitch, sent rabbits into premature labour, caused badgers to tunnel backwards down foxholes, and delivered aneurisms to hedgehogs.
The last of her men went ‘peacefully in his sleep’ beside her, so they said, yet how much calm could he have derived from a neighbouring proximity to a creature that could rouse herself to hair trigger wakefulness at a straw-shift change in the wind outside and cry piteously into her pillow at his slightest fractional turnings in the bed.
She resented them all, of that I have no doubt, and sent them to their graves this way, and yet to prove this in the eyes of her relatives, to shift their rock-bed perception of her goodness a mere sectional degree, to breach the almost physical license of this committed perception, would require a Herculean task of such immense proportion it would render the reversal of the Magna Carta a child’s errand.
“She asks for so little” was the answer I got from my reluctance over her demands on my wife’s time, demands which occurred with copulating frequency since Ruth became confined to her bed, the recurring exponent always expressing doubt and regret over the trifling chores she engaged my wife to bother with. One such trifle, when her patient’s eyesight began to fail her, involved her becoming lector of Ruth’s vast correspondence, forged through alliances with helpmeet members of her matrix of committees, spilling out from its central city web-work to all corners of the globe in an embracing lattice of March of Dimes, West Bank tree planting, Belvedere grant aid or United Sewing Circle Front appeal.
“They are so close,” was my wife’s family’s constant refrain that circled in my head as I often arrived home after a day’s sloughing labour in the lineament factory at the edge of the city limits, spinning fabric of my own, though of an honest kind, to find a chunk of cold ham and an unsalted egg waiting for me on a plate at the fridge end of the kitchen table. Many a day that ham was cooked only on the outside and I had to pick tenderly around the surface with knife and fork, fretting always that I had speared part of the untreated core, and wondering what part of my body the swimming bacteria would beach on and infect first.
“I know we never saw eye to eye,” she said with a weak grimace that ably demonstrated her pain. Hands, from behind me, came to rest on my shoulders, digging soft cleaves into their shape, as much to restrain me as to touch me in this moment of gentle rebuke. “You wanted Christina all to yourself,” this bedridden harpy continued, fixing me with her one good eye, her tone one of regretful lament.
She was always so reluctant, Ruth, behaving as though her tireless wanting should meet a less attentive sympathy, but I, reading conceit in her single, recurring demand of people, perversely applauded this behaviour, and it was this that wound us together, binding her first to my wife, then myself, our recognition of this disobliging bond nerving the strings that held us in a faithful two step as we danced under the garrotte, each feint and weave tightening the fastenings we held on each other, till neither could draw further than a straw width of air…yet she was more practised at it than me.
Unlike with any of her husbands, she saw in me the potential for…more. As there are plants that wither in direct sunlight, needing shelter to grow to their full potential, she sought to shield my distress, prolong it, turning the focus of her deadly need with its viperous, biotic attachments on my wife instead. From beneath the cover of my grove I watched the two of them, saw how those deathly attunements
took the life force from her victim, drawing blood with great heaving, orgiastic pumps, till there was scant left but crust and bone.
I had resolved, on learning of this, to put a stop to it.
One evening, arriving home late from a day spent shifting lineament spools, I entered the kitchen coughing fabric dust onto the floor tiles, judiciously eyeing some blackening cuts of pathogenic salami left lying on a plate in front of the fridge, and something inside me not exactly broke yet turned in a false direction. I went to her then, the last time Ruth and I exchanged words, said something I found barely able to utter yet had drafted to cause separation between her and my wife…and she responded with a gimlet eye and a breathless cackle, laughing at my misfortune…and she said something in return and I was glad because I had pried a moment of honesty from those perjurer’s lips, even though it were not to my benefit, far from it, and I went home happy, my soul resounding in the chambers of my heart like a deeply struck church bell at last call for vespers, the peal of hammer against iron sending out its warning tone to every parishioner within reach of its stroke, fussing their apathy, reprimanding their censure that mistranslates what is meant to what is said.
They all stood around her bed, lifted throne-like on blocks to hospital height (she wanted to die at home, a burden to no one), waiting for her final benediction. She cupped her hands (lapsed by now to the crooked paws of some lower animal) around the arms and wrists of each of them in turn, whispered some obligating blessing, moving on to the next with the mannered paternalism of a Presbyterian minister.
Then it was my wife’s turn. She approached the bed like an anointed supplicant, bearing a pendant with a silver crucifix, which she hung around her neck. Then she knelt down, the caps of her knees cracking against the varnished floor with only a murmur of protest by their owner. Her low-hanging head was level with Ruth’s waist, and the latter saw fit to stroke her neck gently, back and forth, back and forth…and somewhere during this dull chiming of flesh against nape hair I decided it was time for me to approach, and so I drew my wife gently back, her sobbing into her helpmeet’s blouse.
She was ready for me, her look said, a zigzag flash of triumphal alert crossed her good eye as she straightened her crooked mouth into an even smile and reached for me with one of those claws.
I leaned close to her so that she would not have to strain forward but really in order for no one to hear us.
“Do you remember what I said to you the last time we spoke?” she said.
“You said ‘I forgive you.’”
“Yes,” she caressed my hand with her nails, unable to open hers, “and I do still. Do you remember what you said?”
There were tears stinging my eyes “I said ‘We’re both alike.’”
“We both need others.”
She closed her eyes against some sudden, unbidden image, and when she opened them again, it was a mercy, the world had disappeared.