Hair that always smelled of cows

The Discomfort of Evening

In the nights that followed, I kept sneaking downstairs to check whether my brother was really dead. First I’d lie in my bed wiggling around or ‘making a candle’, as I called it, by throwing my legs up in the air and supporting my hips with my hands. In the mornings his death seemed obvious but as soon as it grew dark, I’d begin to have my doubts. What if we hadn’t looked hard enough and he woke up under the ground? Each time, I’d hope that God had changed his mind and hadn’t listened to me when I’d prayed for him to protect Dieuwertje, just like the time – I must have been about seven – when I’d asked for a new bike: a red one with at least seven gears, and a soft saddle with double suspension so that I didn’t get a pain in my crotch when I had to cycle home from school into the wind. I never got the bike. If I went downstairs now, I hoped, it wouldn’t be Matthies lying beneath the sheet but my rabbit. Of course I’d be sad, but it would be different from the beating veins in my forehead when I tried to hold my breath in bed to understand death, or when I made the candle for so long my blood ran to my head like candlewax. Finally, I let my legs drop back onto my mattress and carefully opened my bedroom door. I tiptoed onto the landing and down the stairs. Dad had beaten me to it: through the banisters I saw him sitting on a chair next to the coffin, his head on the glass of the viewing window. I looked down at his messy blond hair that always smelled of cows, even when he’d just had a bath. I looked at his bent body. He was shaking; as he wiped his nose on his pyjama top, I thought how the fabric would become hard with snot, just like my coat sleeves. I looked at him and began to feel little stabs inside my chest. I imagined I was watching Nederland 1, 2 or 3 and could zap away at any moment if it got too much. Dad sat there for so long my feet got cold. When he pushed his chair in and returned to bed – my parents had a waterbed that Dad would sink back into now – I descended the rest of the stairs and sat down on his chair. It was still warm. I pressed my mouth to the window, like the ice in my dreams, and blew. I tasted the salt of my father’s tears. Matthies’s face was as pale as fennel; his lips were purple from the cooling mechanism that kept him frozen. I wanted to turn it off so that he could thaw in my arms and I could carry him upstairs so that we could sleep on it, like Dad sometimes ordered us to when we’d misbehaved and been sent to bed without any dinner. I’d ask him whether this was really the right way to leave us.

The first night he was in the coffin in the front room, Dad saw me sitting with my hands around the banisters and my head pushed through them. He’d sniffed and said, ‘They’ve put cotton wads in his bottom to stop his crap coming out. He must still be warm inside. That makes me feel better.’ I held my breath and counted: thirty-three seconds of suffocation. It wouldn’t be long before I could hold my breath for so long that I’d be able to fish Matthies out of his sleep, and just like the frogspawn we got out of the ditch behind the cowshed with a fishing net and kept in a bucket until they were tadpoles and tails and legs slowly began to grow out of them, Matthies would also slowly transform from lifeless to alive and kicking.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of Evening, tłum. Michele Hutchison, 2020.

Deception Story

Friends describe my DISPOSITION

as stoic. Like a dead fish, an ex said. DISTANCE

is a funny drug and used to make me a DISTRESSED PERSON, one who cried in bedrooms and airports. Once I bawled so hard at the border, even the man with the stamps and holster said Don’t cry. You’ll be home soon. My DISTRIBUTION

over the globe debated and set to quota. A nation can only handle so many of me. DITCHING

class, I break into my friend’s dad’s mansion and swim in the Beverly Hills pool in a borrowed T-shirt. A brief DIVERSION.

My body breaking the chlorinated surface makes it, momentarily, my house, my DIVISION

of driveaway gate and alarm codes, my dress-rehearsed DOCTRINE

of pool boys and ping-pong and water delivered on the backs of sequined Sparkletts trucks. Over here, DOLLY, an agent will call out, then pat the hair at your hot black DOME.

After explaining what she will touch, backs of the hands at the breasts and buttocks, the hand goes inside my waistband and my heart goes DORMANT.

A dead fish. The last female assist I decided to hit on. My life in the American Dream is a DOWNGRADE, a mere DRAFT

of home. Correction: it satisfies as DRAG.

It is, snarling, what I carve of it alone.

Solmaz Sharif, LOOK, 2016.

House – a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers

We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.

The house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principal difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK-CHEEK’. She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.

(…)

About two years afterwards, far too soon but perfectly timed, I brought home a woman, a Plath scholar I met at a symposium.

She was funny and bright and did her best with a fucked-up situation. We had to be quiet because the boys were asleep upstairs.

She was soft and pretty and her naked body was dissimilar to my wife’s and her breath smelt of melon. But we were on the sofa my wife bought, drinking wine from glasses my wife was given, beneath the painting my wife painted, in the flat where my wife died.

I haven’t had sex with many women, and I only got good at it with my wife, doing things my wife liked. I didn’t want to do those things, or think about whether I should be doing those things or thinking about the thinking, which meant I bashed her teeth, then knelt on her thigh, then apologised too much, then came too quickly, then tried too hard, then not hard enough.

But it was good, and she was lovely, and we sat up smoking her strong cigarettes out of the window and talking about everything we’d ever read that wasn’t by or about Sylvia or Ted.

She left and I felt nervous about feeling cheerful. I walked around the flat as if I’d only just met it, long strides and over-determined checking of surfaces. I looked in on the boys.

*

When I came down Crow was on the sofa impersonating me pumping and groaning.

(…)

Permission to leave, I’m done.

Shall I final walk the loop, the Boys/Dad boundary, hop/look/hop/stop.

Shall I final follow hunches, mourn hunt with pack lunches?

I dreamt her arm was blue when I found her, Red where I touched, reacted, peck-a-little, anything?

Nonsuch matte podginess gave way to bone,

Accident in the home.

She banged her head, dreamed a bit, was sick, slept, got up and fell, Lay down and died. A trickle of blood from an ear.

Hop/look/sniff/taste/better not. Total waste.

Lifeless cheek, lifeless shin, foot and toe. Wedding ring. Smile.

The medics arrive, the kids at school are learning, learning.

As you were, English widower, foliate head, The undercliff of getting-on, groans, humps, huffs and puffs, Wages, exams, ball-drops, lies and ecstatic passages, All dread dead as the wildflower meadow.

Starts again in proper time.

Some dads do this, some dads do that. Some natural evil, some fairly kind.

Pollarded, bollarded, was-it-ever-thus. Elastic snaps, a sniff and a sneeze and we’re gone.

Coppiced, to grow well.

Connoisseurs, they were, of how to miss a mother.

My absolute pleasure.

Just be good and listen to birds.

Long live imagined animals, the need, the capacity.

Just be kind and look out for your brother.

Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, 2016.