By Yannick Murphy
Rings and necklaces are warm from my aunt’s skin when she pulls them up from under her covers and puts them in my hand. How can the body of this old woman still make things warm?
I look at the jewelry—faux pearls, gold birds with rhinestones for eyes and a Christmas tree with bulbs of colored glass.
“Where did you get these?” I ask.
“Places I have been to,” she says. “In Egypt I bought a box whose lid engravings told the story of the Nile.”
“Where is it now?” I ask. “Here,” she says, and she pats her blanket.
“In Amsterdam I bought delft clogs,” she says.
“And from India?” I say.
“From India,” she says, and then falls asleep.
Outside the clouds are not whole but look like they have been skywritten by planes that left puffs of letters that can no longer be read. My aunt’s breathing sounds like whistling. I pull back the blanket. In her sleep she holds onto chains made out of gold. By her feet are kid gloves whose cuffs are embroidered with climbing vines. By her arm there is a beaded purse and silver chopsticks. At her neck there are rings. Between her legs are brass candleholders and a doily and a small postal balance. At the end of the bed there is a tiger’s foot, a man’s shoe and the engraved box from Egypt.
“Aunt Germaine,” I say.
She wakes up and tells me lies better than your truths—cars filled with so many roses you could not see to drive; men so handsome mothers hid them from their own husbands, afraid of accusations of infidelity; boats so long they carried a fleet of taxis for passengers set on going forward and aft; sleepwalking maids who scaled ceilings at night and dusted in the daytime; women who lived on lawns and property because they could not get in the house.
“What about India?” I say.
“Oh, India,” she says, “cows that read people’s palms—predicted death and children. Foretold gains, stated losses lost, estimated the depth of a lover’s love, based fears on the leftward rightward way a middle finger slants. Sacred as all shit, those cows.”
We are somewhere in the nation’s capital. The street we are on has the name of a tree—Sycamore Terrace or Cedar Lane or Walnut Place. There is an island in the driveway covered with trees. My Aunt Germaine is dying. Maybe she could be buried in the driveway. I do not know what the names of those trees are. It would be so easy for the family to visit her. They could back out and turn around.
“Aunt Germaine,” I say, “what’s the name of this place?”
Aunt Germaine does not answer. Instead she takes her chopsticks and pinches at the dust in the light that comes into the room from everywhere, seizing the pieces that are smallest.
Copyright © 2007 Yannick Murphy
I love the multilayered structure of the story. The deeper you go, the more you discover. While Aunt Germaine is getting ready to move to the afterlife, surrounded by the bits and pieces of her past, the only living person who comforts her is her niece. Why? We will never know. It seems like her life was rich and inclusive enough so that she would be surrounded by friends, family and lovers, “men so handsome mothers hid them from their own husbands, afraid of accusations of infidelity.” And yet she is like an ancient Egyptian, who collected the artifacts that are ready to accompany her in her last journey. The family hovers somewhere, but not next to her, yet we feel the love coming from her niece, and that makes the sadness tolerable.