I helped her sit up. Her breath shallowed and her eyes were unfocused, looking beyond me, beyond the hallway. She was so fragile, and I was careful not to jostle. She sat forward and I readjusted the pillows. I saw through thin nicotine hair to a grey-pink scalp, mottled with freckles and small sores. Her breath was dry and medicinal, and the cluster of sticks that were bones felt brittle beneath her nightgown. Such a strong woman. She always was, but her strength was heartbreaking because I knew how much it drained her. There was a pained look in her eyes, even as she stared towards the hallway. She was looking at something beyond, and I wondered if it was her future or past. I was about to call for Ruth, but then she smiled. My mother smiled. It was so full of kindness and sorrow, that all words disappeared.
“You ran,” she said. “I remember that. All boys run, I know, but you ran hard. Not towards something but away from it.
“I was outside, hanging up laundry, all those heavy bed sheets. There wasn’t much of a breeze, and I was hoping the sun would dry them before suppertime. The air felt so wet. I don’t guess you saw me. You didn’t see anything but what you were running away from. My first thought was, ‘yellow-jackets’, and then ‘bear’. A mother always thinks the worst. But nothing was chasing you, nothing I could see. Lord, you ran! You disappeared around the corner and I swear I could see the dust rising from the gravel. The air was so thick and I worried about you. But you were a boy, and boys have to learn. You were my boy. I couldn’t teach you anything more than what I knew.
“Your Dad was back of the yard, working on his mower, the smell of engine parts, and his sweaty shirt collar, him without a hat, and I thought about pouring us a glass of tea when I was done, and then I saw him, kneeling on the grass, dirty rags around his boots, and I thought… well, it doesn’t matter now what I thought. A person sees a thing more clearly after it’s been lit and extinguished. The fire is what you see, but the smoke is what you remember. I remember your Dad. So young and handsome, and only a week later….”
A lone tear fell from her eye. It was lustrous and pure. She blinked, and her eyelashes broke the tear apart, like a shattered splash of rain. My eyesight was poor and the room was dark, but I imagined I could see a prism of light yielding from each one of those fragmented splashes.
Her breath hitched, and she continued: “You were running, David. As fast as I ever saw a boy run. But then I accepted there wasn’t a thing chasing you, and it left my mind. Those bed sheets were so heavy, still dripping, and whatever breeze happened along, well, those sheets would slap my arms when I lifted them to the line.
“Twenty minutes later, Ruth wandered up from the river. She looked pale. She was just meandering, staring at the road, the Queen Anne’s frothing from the ditch. It was the opposite of hurrying. And I thought to myself, David wouldn’t be running away from Ruth, would he? That didn’t make any sense, you two were close that summer. Closer than most people noticed. But I noticed. And then it occurred to me, like a strike of lightning.
“She broke your heart that day, didn’t she, boy?”
I tried to remember the last time my mother called me a boy. Years. Decades. I nodded. My mouth felt like a sandstorm, all those blowing words caught up in my throat and scattering them into nonsense noises.
She nodded, the small smile still held on her lips. “I thought as much. And there was nothing I could say to heal it. A heart has to repair itself. And you never let yours be mended, did you? That’s why you had to leave, and stay away from the family. Because she was part of the family, no matter how many branches away from the center.
“And so here we are.”
I nodded, and tried to fetch the words from my throat. Eventually I found them. “And so here we are.”