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Bright Spaces

The cat’s paws brush through the letterbox, looking for some jellied meat or an opening in the family. Cat pushes a letter through the door. The letter marked J.H. Ottessa, dead brother of mine. My brother’s bedsheets still warm-sweaty. My brother’s paw prints dented into the doormat. Rain water falls heavy from the gutter makes me look up, makes me remember what day it is what time it is. I call my little girl’s name Annette A        eh Annette A        eh voice through the wall, and the echo of her name, Annette, from the other side. Her face screwed up fingers in ears not to have to hear, Annette, all the damn half-hour of the morning of all the days to be playing up the day of the funeral day late for church day.

 

But a child can grieve, let the child be grieving, let the child        be.

 

Eight years old were you brother? And I a bit older. I see you running down the street, a sun-blazed strip lined with flowers begging for water, petals blown-out hearts. It was a day with corn, heavily spiced and salted. Smoke and charcoal. Nice. Heat beating a path into our bones, our brows wet. You had a rug tied round your neck with garden twine, lying out in the sun charge up charge up, before flying off, past the street light, past the telephone wire, past the aeroplane. Almost choked yourself to death. I stretched out a hand to you, hooked onto a gate latch – the lynch mob’s latest victim, to save you from a strangling. You hit my hand away. And again. Something in your eyes said this isn’t a game. But I pulled you up pulled up out of the fire, that time, my hand melting into yours.

 

The church is cold. Warmed with bodies, they sitting on they heels        huh        sitting in the dirt        huh        rocking on they legs, mouth open moans we perform the wailing of the milk, divide up the ashes, and return to our        leaking gutters.

 

You were fifteen you were fine, then acting strange. ‘Where’s my outline?’ you’d say on repeat, scratching at the armchair as if it was a life raft. You alone in an ocean, the deepdeep, ‘You’re rubbing me out,’ you’d say. ‘Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you, I warned you.’ And we couldn’t touch you, you were so gone. Daddy shake you by the shoulders, his wrists strong, finger-knuckles pale. It was fear not anger made him act. Fear not anger made Mother a quiet spot of light, a reflection on the wall.

 

Just before we’d seen a cat at the side of the road, struck dead in the morning’s bending light. Covered in a towel we lifted to see its face, jaw shut, eyes closed. You were adamant that the cat, the beast, had taken a part of you with it to hell.

 

I’m closing your bank account. Looking for details        details, a statement, a letter. Couldn’t you have kept this room in less disarray? Everything had its place in your mind, sure, and now I’m sorting through your memory bank of bird junk. Like our guttering stuffed with leaves and debris, bottle tops, sweet wrappers, not meant for the nest of a natural thing. Your hospital letters and prescriptions all around here. Your bedsheets warm-sweaty. Let me tell you, brother, there’s money in that account, why did you spend so much time on the streets when you could’ve been living something better than you did? Doodles over everything: crabs walking off the page, snakes eating their own tails, horseshoes, kites a diamond divided into four, a lightning bolt striking the letter X.

 

Thumbs-up was your best doodle. The white and pink of the nail a clean line, skin taut over the knuckles, a few hairs, the perspective so the curl of the fist leant towards you. I saw you perfect that from the first year of school, to the age of university smart boy you came home with new words in your mouth. You recite the words like a humming prayer: vindicate, aurify, assimilate, quantum, divinity, ontology, petrichor, ossify, gravitation, explication, commodification, metaphysical, ad infinitum, fluphenazine, clozapine, and then quetiapine, pontificate, capitulate, and then exonerate, and then        and then        month on month your presence became an absence. Between your two eyes lay an open road.  Yet you could explain to me that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The smallest fragments come together only to later be pulled apart and you, created, uncreated, one manifestation of a constant vibration from which you were formed and to which you would return. You were never really born, and won’t ever die.

 

You’ve got a key to the house, I haven’t changed the locks. We’re waiting for your return and we don’t want you to be kept out in the rain. I can hear your tired hand knocking against the brass, a sharp intake of breath as you steady yourself, cursing, to find your way inside did I take care of you?

 

Once you said it was like walking through a door, passing from a dark room into another filled with a terrible bright light. In the corner of the room the beast was waiting for you, coercing you into the bright space. Your position in the cosmos uncertain, held in place by a tense thread, thin as the guiding line of a spider’s web. I came to recognise the signs, ‘Cat’s creeping,’ you would sometimes say, ‘I warned you, don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

 

Annette is missing you. She doesn’t talk about you much but holding her hand in the street I feel the pull of her recognition. Any bald black head in the street and she turns to you, your bald black head reflecting the weather, overcast or sunshine, or aurified with Sahara sand your big black bald.

 

A glass full of apple juice on your bookshelf, now on the floor in pieces. The carpet drinks it up. It shattered so easily, had a weakness. Picking up the shards of glass with my fingertips, and the vacuum, and I’m still here finding pieces. Apple, nylon and dust, a sweet wheat, a smell like the sweat of the scalp. I soak it with soap and leave the wet glisten to dry but the apple endures like a cloud in my nose. The books in your room endure, spines look back at me with indifference. The penned marks on your papers. Your alarm clock endures. Your bedsheets. The open window, the curtains, and wind that moves them endures. Your big bald head endures, for us, endures.

 

I sense a warm charge in the air, precursor to a storm. How often does it rain in here? I think to gather up all your things before the rain thinks to wash them away. No, rain won’t wash it away, holy water wouldn’t wash us of it. When the rain comes water will bounce straight off me, bouncing off my oily feathers. A flock of geese fly overhead        through through my mind. It’s a feathery mess I don’t know how to clean up.

 

In the garden, the glut of rain has given the weeds new strength to reach for their sun, and I’ve been worrying about the bluebells. This year it seems like they might never come up and what can I do about it? I’m confined to a bubble in time, violet hues oscillate around my head, a metallic echo as I speak, my voice rebounded. The birds are readying their nests. I’ve seen them around busy with pieces of twig, plastic, grass, rubber, instinctive determination; instinctive, that was a word from your tongue. Your tongue in my mouth with the word, a fist uncurled with a gift. When I look into the eyes of a bird I see nothing but the dark. They don’t need to try, to regret, no conflict in them to overcome.

 

Daddy cried in church. First time since he was a child, a guess. He didn’t cry when his wife died, that’s how I guessed. She had a story of her own but I didn’t deign to hear it, didn’t point my ears her way        no        NO        the O is empty, the O symbolic (your word again) of a dark tunnel never travelled, an opening, Mother, I never entered. She a quiet spot of light. Brother, you were the boy, seed of Daddy’s back and brow, the boy of gold-turmeric-yellow as his left-hand tooth. Yellow as that Sahara sand, everyone slowed to look at the sky, tinted with a dappled yolk. That was something rare.

 

He will take your ashes with him back to the continent. To a tree of his own childhood. He will put your ashes into earth cracked like the wrinkles in your feet. Cracked earth, once mud, earth and water, earth and water with red hue like the rounded edges of your fingertips        huh        under a tree where the birds move in a line, making a hell of a noise as they jump from branch to branch.

 

The evenings Mother would cut our hair, me first because it was always a struggle. Daddy stretch out in the chair, best placed for what he had to say, what he always say. Home, talking of home. He never took us there. Home, talking of home and the ground, the colour of the earth, deep brown, red. ‘Eat it, it make you strong,’ he say. ‘Earth pound by the fist of God        red hue        earth        crack like a rough hand        earth.’

 

My hair cut and fresh I sit back and watch yours. Yours always grew faster, thicker. Watch the coils rain down onto the carpet like spring shedding its feathered seed to the wind. Trust the immortal code find fertile ground. Trust it grow. Daddy going on, ‘Listen for the sound of the forest at night, for the ancestor spirit, for the animal. Everything holy under the fist of God. Eat it, it make you strong.’

 

We pound our cereal into dust, God’s pounded earth is the sand, the sandcastle his castle, pounded yams, grounded black beans and potatoes, chocolate powder; anything fine enough to squeeze through our fingers, or shudder through the air as dust. I watch you lick the sweet dust from God’s fist. I watch the spring fall from your hair, and sense the cool slice of Mother’s comb. You raise your arms at this point. And I remember the rounded side of your face, the silhouette of a boy cut from a storm shadow of foreboding. The muscles in your back, firm as dents in sheet metal. Your eyes cut from the cold half-moon.

 

I watch you comb a beard matted from hours of disturbed sleep: white gown, wet fingers and Vaseline, the walls a faded yellow and a light grey floor – impostering, lit so bright as to imitate whiteness. I help you rub a shine onto your head as you will the beast to be quiet. You turn to me in a clear moment and say, ‘I always feel so lonely in these        bright spaces.’ My eyes fixed onto your silhouette. Against the bright room you brown as browned with iodine, loved by a mother, repented by the father, grazed by faith        huh, was he?        canonised by the hieroglyph: the lightning bolt, the thumbs up, the kite (the diamond in four). ‘Do you feel the cold?’ you ask. I move around the room, closing the door and the windows.

 

Daddy waxes on, before relaxing into sleep, a whiskey smile spread wider than his nose. His nose and the corners of his mouth draw an A, and his whole face says        ayyyy. You inherited the A nose, sturdy nostrils like round pipes, but you were beholden to the slim nose. You were unsatisfied. Yeah. And moody, lonely with your nose you blamed for the girls look the other way.

 

From the church to our door a trail of dust, memories that spill. Your ashes have lodged themselves beneath my fingernails and they float from room to room. They have a chokehold on me and Annette. Soon they will blot out the sun. The green will drain from the plants until all is muted, dead, and the earth becomes a wound.

 

But cheer me up, shit        tell me.

 

Every episode was a set-back.

 

A drug turned the beast into a pussycat, but made your limbs dumb.

 

And now the beast that haunted you will haunt me in the damp walls of the house, at work, in the light-hidden corners of the stock room, and pen-drawn lines striped by your hand which I may hold onto.

 

Annette has held onto more than your shadow, the child braver than I. Unafraid to look into your light that threatens to annihilate, and breathe in the dust that will blot out the sun. She can feel you in damp corners of the house. Your words spilling from her mouth, vindicate, aurify, ad infinitum, forgive, instinctive, symbolic. Re-drawing the lines of your pictures, and the lightning bolt strikes X and Y. I should clean up the mess, throw the ashes, make it so that you’re really gone. But rain water won’t wash it away.

 

The smell of food, long time ago. Curry powder, chicken marinade, soy black as black, spring onions burnt sweet, charred skin fatty under heat radiating from her palms. Mother, on that warm Sunday morning, raised her hands to the sky our lord our saviour. Fanned her face with a folded paper. Doused her damp underarms with perfume, a heady musk that would betray to us a nervousness of this        church company. Singing the blues of less than belonging while Daddy shaking hands. You and me fumbling with an elasticated tie, Sunday school, give not that which is holy unto the dogs, scratch of velcro as you hook a foot around my ankle. Wait outside sit on the wall for Daddy to get the car and drive to that        chicken cooking, be good and you’ll get dessert, past the estate, pointing out all those who weren’t so blessed to be streets apart from the sour tang of a piss stairway.

 

After food, us on the patio, the breeze light on the arm hairs, a bucket of water, cold from the pipe, my back jarred on the edge, head lowered into the circle like a heavy green paw paw. Your hand a cradle, each finger a pulse into my scalp while you sermonise my being saved under Christ.

 

‘Do you feel the Lord son?’ Your best southern states accent. ‘Do you feel the lord’s nourishing dew?’ Dew as in doo   doo   doo   doo   doooo   Stevie Wonder, as around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving. You told me I’d be saved today, ‘Did the lord tell you, did he tell you the news?’ Did he as in Diddy Bop versus Perseus to the father of his birth to tell the truth, that I’m his real son, the song dropped last summer and did you hear it? You won’t hear it.

 

You continue your prayer over me, lips pursed, a steady hand, a scoop of water rained onto my forehead while your voice I hear, as if you’re hidden over there where the bluebells are supposed to grow, near drowned out by the thump O rain.

 

‘Do you feel the cold?’ you say.

 

My back-head is submerged and rush        air into my lungs, cold rises up my nerves, pooling into an ache in my forehead, submerged again, deeper deep as my back can crane.

 

‘Feel the cold water over you and the Lord’s warmth will enter,

and the light will enter and it will be blinding,

and you will be good and you will surely receive the after dinner cake.’

 

Back-head is submerged and breathe        lungs deep, enter a room, close the windows. I hear a door shutting. The flap of a wing. Electric bright light.

 

‘Blessed is your back-head as long as it’s under, blessed is your back-head as long as it’s under. Do you feel the cold brother        ?’   

 

Feel the cold        cold water.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and poet living in London. Her work has appeared in Prototype Magazine, Frieze, and The Literary Consultancy. Her story 'At the Heart of Things' won the The White Review Short Story Prize 2019.

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