Drying my hands with a paper towel, I glance into the mirror. My blue silk blouse– there’s a dark spot on it I hadn’t seen before. I look down, lift the fabric: it isn’t water. How long has the stain been here, why has no one said anything? From somewhere else in the dream I hear a dog barking.
Back at the table with the small lit candle, I clasp my hands and rub the curve of my ring with a thumb, ask question after question calmly, draw out the man across from me as if this will keep him from asking me questions, as though with his answers I control the space between us.
My uncle taught me how to hold still and stare until an animal lost its fear– wild kitten in the barn, squirrel, even deer. Once, he had saved me from drowning– he said he had– before I knew what drowning meant, what the water could do if I let it take me in. I remember his reaching down, lifting me, pulling me closer to shore, setting me on my feet again, then his hands pressing into my hair, holding my face where he wanted it to be.
He tried to teach me how to skip stones over water, four-five times before the river swallowed them; tried to teach me how to whistle through a spear of grass too, but I couldn’t do it, couldn’t even whistle with my mouth alone, or snap my fingers either, and in dreams that I wanted to end I could never call out to stop what kept happening.
My uncle is failing, not there anymore, my second cousin says; I haven’t seen him in years. Sometimes I imagine going to the nursing home, asking which door and walking into his room, where he can do nothing to get away. But I never know how to ask what I need him to answer; all I say is “Look at me,” and it fades out there. Probably he’ll have no particular response; no doubt his memory’s even more tattered than mine, but sometimes with old people a surprise will catch at loose scraps, memory beneath memory– of treating children the way he treated animals, say– sometimes gently, sometimes not, holding them in his spell.
In the winter of third grade, girls could be lambs or angels for the Christmas Pageant, depending on their luck– and one girl got to be Mary. I asked again and again in my mind to be chosen to wear Mary’s pure blue gown– it had to be me: most obedient girl in the class. When it happened, I thought this meant something would change, but no, the baby I carried was a plastic toy, and Joseph walked ahead of me into Jerusalem, anxious to finish his wrestling match with a Wise Man. The angels sang shakily under a tinfoil-covered cardboard star, and I understood that the change had happened already, couldn’t be changed back by someone else’s story.
I used to walk out alone to the edge of the wide field overlooking the river and sit beside the big white stone that was my friend, promising to ask nothing, like the stone– not hurting then, not needing anyone else, only worrying a little when the grass under us bent down as I had been bent down. But the grass would lift up again, with the wind.
Debra Nystrom is the author of four poetry collections: A Quarter Turn, Torn Sky, Bad River Road, and most recently Night Sky Frequencies, New and Selected Poems. Her poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, The Virginia Quarterly Review and The American Poetry Review. She teaches in the MFA Program at The University of Virginia.