by Stella Aldrich
I sit by the window and try to count the chimneys, but fall into cyclical failure. There are far too many chimneys and far too much sky for my dubious endeavor.
The sky is the yellow of melted butter, the type I used to churn for my mother on Saturdays and would spread on warm bread on Sundays. I have not seen a sky this color since I left home, so many months ago. When it was just the few of us, I collected the sunsets and daybreaks thoughtlessly. I did not consider the finite quantity of skies we would gather.
Before I left, we were five. It is not a particularly beautiful number: a flat-capped, round-bellied, frown, but my addition always came to the same solution. A mother, a father, a brother, a sister, and I equaled five. My mother taught me to count with dried kidney beans that looked like the squirrel intestines littering my brother’s bedroom floor. I knew that two plus two equals four, and would equal four every time. I knew that four spare kidney beans would make five when another one fell from my mother’s delicate fingers. I would sit, my bare bum on the dusty floor, and line the beans in a row, then scoot them close together so each kidney spooned the other to create a continuous, bulbous being.
We should have been six: a natural number: a tadpole with its tail curving round to beckon its head. Not far from my home – not far from the grave – was a stream. Each spring, I crouched on its bank and reached one large palm into the cool water. The water didn’t move fast, a lackadaisical excuse of a tributary. Some days, I crouched until my knees creaked like a rusted automaton, determined to catch the elusive tadpole. There were so many inky tails I once thought that I was passing out, but their sheer concentration was nothing more than a taunt. No matter their number, no matter the hours I spent hunched under the weak, slim, sun, every tadpole wriggled between my pinched fingers, and out of my grasp. I never captured the six; I only poked the soft eggs before they hatched and wondered how the instant between gestation and existence could be so thin – how it could file away to nothingness.
We should have been six, not that they knew it then. The way my mother told it, her belly was bigger, heavier, than it was with my siblings, but too small to consider multiples. All of the time she spent crooning to us and tapping coded messages into her naval, she talked to one. Maybe I ate all of my mother’s words, gorging myself and sucking the womb dry. Maybe I didn’t leave enough for my sister, denying her anything beyond an instant of existence.
Willimein slipped out first. She escaped my mother’s cavernous body with the ease of my escaping tadpoles. Then, for a moment, they were five. My mother embraced Willimien’s cornflower being. Her child, little more than a silken packet of bones, breathed her first breath in my mother’s hands – her mother’s hands. The cornflower blue of my sister’s face deepened to purple under the red blood and white pus from my mother. The moment following her first breath, the silence awaiting her scream, lengthened until I was born – unexpectedly – in the shadow of my mother’s grief.
We were five once more, though we should have been six. My family buried my sister as my mother left me inside, ignoring my cries for milk – so quiet compared to her own cries. Willimein’s headstone stands under the great oak in our yard, her name facing the front door. After my sister was laid to rest, my mother named me Willimein, so I could sit inside, look out the window, and see my namesake. Every time I left the house, I was confronted with the betrayal of my existence, but I could not resent my sister, nor her death; hate for a life that small would bloat its meager corpse.
Now I am one, with a window full of chimneys and sloping roofs. I sit in this room of my own, basking in the fading light and listening to the jovial sounds of muffled diners, glasses clinking, and dogs yapping at the liquid illusion of dusk. It has been months, but I still haven’t grown accustomed to my solitary view and city nights.
I left as I entered: obscured by my mother’s grief. In recent years, my father was repulsed by our home, by every one of our four brick walls. He rose before the sun, citing scripture as his master. As Abraham “rose early in the morning,” as Jesus left the house “while it was still dark,” my father hiked the measly path from our house to his house of God. I used to wake when he left, his footsteps enough to disturb me from my vacuous dreams. Among the rumbling snoring of my siblings, I watched through my window as my father’s looming silhouette shrank to an inkblot, then nothingness – just the empty space he occupied and the approaching gray dawn. Eventually, I no longer watched my father leave, but passed him on his way out. Some mornings he nodded at me, but most days he quickened his pace, not daring to acknowledge my presence. I like to think that his shame, his denial, was indicative of compassion, that he was ashamed of his weakness, rather than our sins, but I never heard our names cross his lips in worship. My father prayed for our village, our neighbors, strangers, and friends. My father prayed for humanity, but he could not spare his faith for his children, if his well was not boundless, perhaps he would have met my gaze, but instead he gazed at his palms and asked the Lord for mercy.
Most nights, I wandered from bar to bar; there were only four establishments that served alcohol in our village, so it wasn’t a lengthy endeavor. Like a hen counting her chicks, I checked each, again and again, until the bartenders yelled answers to my questions before I could utter a word.
“He’s not here,” they would say.
On some nights, if I was lucky, they might cock their head or throw a pointed glance, directing me to the hunched form of my brother – Vincent. The drink made his lips red and puffy, like a pair of squashed blisters oozing poison onto his sallow chin. It was easier if he was already unconscious, but on the nights he wasn’t, I used a hair ribbon to restrain his roaming hands.
On other nights, I found Vincent in ditches, fields, church pews, and mangers. Once, he was sprawled like a cracked egg on the grocer’s unassuming roof. I hooked Vincent’s arm with a dull pitchfork and coaxed his unresponsive body down the shingles. Alas, it was not a delicate labor; Vincent tumbled from his perch, catching his oversized boot in the gutter, and swung there: a hung man, until the gutter succumbed under his weight. Vincent slammed the ground with enough force to wake the dead, but still, he did not stir. He never walked the same again; his left leg dragged behind his right, unable to keep up.
I did not ask Vincent to stop; he was eight years older; we did not talk. Instead, I came to know the night: the silent sound of forming dew and the sweet scents of unseen stars. I came to know my brother in a mechanical sense, as an artist knows their model: a spirit’s clumsy manifestation within the awkward specifications of form.
Earlier this week, a bird flew in while I read my sister’s letter – a fat, iridescent, pigeon. There were only three stilted sentences on the page. The pigeon shat on the parchment as I consumed the final line and flew out my open window, leaving my speckled fingers in its wake; I have not moved since. The city is cold at night, so the syrupy white feces have hardened to something resembling grout. I do not know how many days have passed, but it is of little matter.
We should have been six. We were five. Now, we are a disparate collection of beans, with little more than a graveyard in common. Perhaps my sister is right, that my leaving was the root of our dissolution, but she never wrung Vincent’s vomit from her hair. She slept while my father closed the door on his way out. She did not coexist with a grave bearing her own name. I cannot know her reality any more than I can count the blurry chimneys interrupting the horizon. All I know is her shit-stained pronouncement of Vincent’s death.
He died under the sweeping stars he loved so much, the stars he taught me to love in turn. Vincent once said that “the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day,” but the sky is muted with him gone. Where I once saw balls of flames, I now see dull black with a dusting of white – no more remarkable than my speckled fingers lost in a sea of tadpoles.