The light blue sheets are smoothed and tucked tightly as one would for a fussy toddler. The artificial breath hisses. She lays next to me, only a hand’s breadth between us. The brown vinyl chair sticks to the back of my legs, even though the temperature in the room is cool. Still, it reclines, and so I am able to slip in and out of the room, drunk with the evening’s half-light.
She stands under the sour cherry tree in our old town, in our old backyard, in an old swiss-dotted dress that nipped in at the waist. Her legs are bare; she wears no shoes. I am six, maybe seven. My dress is covered in tiny yellow tulips. It is my favorite.
The warm sun filters through the tree. I hold the bowl, the old blue crock with a hairline crack running through it, a fault line always threatening to erupt. It grows heavy with the cherries. I am afraid I will drop it, but I don’t say this to her. She is laughing.
It is a beautiful sound, her laugh, deep and throaty. She pops cherries into her mouth, a hungry bird. One, two, three - she swallows them, pits and all. Another handful, her slim, pale arm reaches high. She captures a cluster, tugging them firmly off the branch, still laughing. Her hair, her wavy nutty-brown hair, glows like a warm and quiet place.
But the bowl is heavy, so heavy. My matchstick arms are too weak to bear the weight.
Mama. It is barely a whisper. She looks down. Her mouth is red, terrible and bright from the cherries. She smiles, her teeth pink and her mouth wide. Still laughing, always laughing. She reaches towards me. I cannot help but drop the bowl, and it will break, oh, I know it will break because of the crack that has always been there. But it doesn’t – it hits the grass and the cherries spill, bloody and bright against a sharp sea of green and I am afraid, so afraid to look up at her with her red, red mouth and her teeth squared off like a –
I jolt awake, gasping like a banked fish. She breathes, precise and mechanical. Her eyes, once sharp and brown, move beneath papery eyelids, sightless. Her bloodless lips, slack. Open. The wetness at her mouth - I wipe it away with a tidy corner of sheet. I am almost sure she has not moved.
Don’t give cherries to pigs or advice to fools, I whisper her words. My heart thuds four beats to every one intake of the machine. One swift pull against the chair back sets it into an upright position. The angle provides little comfort but it doesn’t matter - I won’t sleep. I can’t make that mistake again. I must keep watch.