Flicker |Tiffany Lindfield |Fiction

Soiled blankets, so trodden with grime that the stench makes them weigh a ton. I pull one to my nose to smell it, like the dog used to sniff our britches—before he was shot by one of Stalin’s men.

Mama used to hang the blankets and the rugs over the sawhorse in the yard and beat them with the broom. I was little enough to get away with lying on the porch, while she worked, watching dust fly in the air. Even in winter, Mama would beat them, and the dust would fly and mingle with snowflakes.

This was before Stalin came, and father was carried off by men with badges on their brown coats. Before Mama got so sick that yellow rounded her eyes, and her voice turned from happy chirps escaping a perky smile to raspy gasps. With one of the blankets to my chin, the house rattles like an old bone in a bucket as winter rages outside. The stove is on, and we huddle around it, but the logs are dying out. Mama lays beside me snoring.

Brother lays on the stove because of his fever, waking only to whimper, then sleeping in fits. I lay awake, watching the glow from the stove throw shadows on the wall, and Stalin’s dark piercing eyes blare down on us from the flimsy poster hung on the wall. The men with badges had placed him there when father was dragged away, father still cursing the collective. 

Stalin’s face is strong. His mustache clipped. His cheeks have color, and I know he isn’t hungry. The dying fire flickers in his eyes. I know wherever he is, his plate is full. His blankets are clean. His house has floors, and he is warm.

“Fuck you,” I mouth and spit. Brother looks down at me with crust around his mouth. “Water?”

I wiggle from the warmth of the blankets, and—as quiet as I can—pour him a cup of water from the pitcher Mama keeps in the corner.

He sits up, warm tears slipping on sunken cheeks. His eyes are gray, and his voice so faint, it’s like he isn’t there. His fever makes him want water so bad he wants to lap the ocean, but he only has the strength to wet his lips.

He uses his dirty sleeve to wipe his mouth, and I see one of his eyes twitches. I remember when he was a baby, laughing and giggling with smiles so big I could only laugh back. Mama, father, and I taught him how to play, walk, and talk. It stirs my heart with a paddle to see his words whittled to pleads.

“Lay down. You’ll feel better in the morning,” I lie to him, kissing his warm cheek. Whatever is killing him will kill me, too, I suppose.

I lay back beside Mama who’s still snoring, her nose spitting air. I listen to the bones in her body rattle against her loose skin, hanging like film over her rib cage. Her belly hangs like the crown chickens wear on their heads. I nuzzle my nose into the bones of her back, with the blanket over my head. I do not want to hear Brother cry anymore, or see Stalin taunt us.

“Sleep, baby,” she says, waking up, reaching her hand to pat my butt.

A stray rooster crows but Mama is already up, hovering over Brother, checking his eyes. Her steps are heavy, like she lugs cement wrapped around her thighs. Her head stays bent to the ground, and her shoulders roll forward like a cross is on her back.

“Mama, is Brother okay?”

She doesn’t answer. I watch her go outside into the dying winter storm for more logs. A mouse scurries. She returns, blowing the snowy air into the house, small clouds escaping her cheeks.

I watch her pull a bit of bread from the stove. Not much. She cuts the loaf into two pieces. Brother sits up on the stove, reaching his hand out for a piece, but Mama doesn’t look at him. She hands me a piece and goes to the corner of the room. I cannot see her; she turns her back to us, but I can hear her swallow the bread like a hungry wolf.

My brother pleads, “Mama, please. I’m so hungry.”

I stand up with the bread still in my hand. My stomach aches and my lips tremble. My legs are weak, and I can barely hold my body up. Mama turns around.

“Mama, what about Brother?”

“He’s dying. Eat your bread. I must save the food I have for my healthy child. Eat, baby,” she says in spats of despair. Her eyes slant in supplication.

She does not look at my brother who withers his begging hand back to his chest. He curls back into a ball on the stove and weeps so bitterly, I feel the sting of his tears.

Stalin beams from the wall.

I go under the nasty quilt and eat the bread, piece by piece as if I’m but a mouse, a bird picking at the dirt for mites. The bites are so small I don’t have to chew. Just lick them into my mouth.

Mama lays back beside me, and her body shakes for a long time as she heaves from the empty well deep within her. I wrap my small arms, like twigs, around her neck, kissing it, trying to forget Brother.

“The neighbor will bring us some potatoes soon and then we can get up and do something,” Mama finally says, desperate to sound like her old self.

The door rattles with someone knocking. It’s the undertaker. Every week they come, and I know them by now. The way they enter the room like wrecking balls, gruff voices, hats, and coats, smelling of cigarettes and candy.

I sit up and Mama does, too. She nods her head to Brother on the stove, and they throw him in a barrel; like he’s nothing more than a rock to be kicked around.

One of the men crunches his boots over our blankets on the floor and yanks Mama’s chin up. “This one, too.”

“Mama?” I squeak.

The two men hurl her off the ground and toss her like a bag of chicken bones next to Brother’s now cold body. She lets out a hard moan, followed by a low whine of despair.

“Mama isn’t dead.”

One of the men slaps me so hard in the face, I humble to the ground, as if to pray. “You want us to take you, too?”

I hold my hand over the slap and watch as they carry Brother and Mama out the door.

“Mama. Brother.”

When their footsteps are gone, no longer terrorizing the blanket of snow outside, I pull the wood chair with shaky legs to the wall and stand on it, and with all my might, I tear him off our wall. I grit my teeth and throw him in the stove’s fire, where flames curl around his face, melting his skin to soot. I watch him flicker into ashes, then I crawl on top of the stove, where Brother laid, and weep.

Photo by krisna iv on Unsplash

 

 

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