Are you dead, Maria?
It seems so.
Their black clothes. Their black veils. Their white handkerchiefs, dry in their pockets. None linger at my grave. No flowers of regret. No touch of sorrow.
Say it was tragic. Say you will miss me. Don’t leave without saying you loved me anyway.
“She’s in a better place.”
My daughter stands beside them. Her little hands clutch her favorite bear in a hug.
“Remember, Hilda darling, when you came to live with us?”
“I don’t remember,” she says. She’s too young to cry about death.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” my sister croons, kissing my daughter’s temple. “It will be better now.”
Their relief that I’m gone is no measure of love. They’re cowards. And I hate them for it.
Nothing is not a thing easily described. It is not a thing to be felt. Nothing is not seen. I am like a wisp of vapor lost in a valley in the dead of night. Floating. Formless. Bound by an unknown tether. The emptiness is everywhere. It is consuming. It is to exist in the absence of everything.
There are others. Same as me. Gray faces, distorted and silent. We are empty and adrift. All of us waiting.
Love is for the living. The dead cannot wish it back. The memories they keep are malleable, moods of a tempest. We cannot tell them they loved us when they didn’t.
There are some that try. Prostrate. Screaming in silence, a void filled with anger. Despair. Regret. As if to provoke the ones they left behind to reconsider. To remember something different than what was. Hoping time will change a memory.
I did not love my mother. Piety did not become her. It was no more than a veneer, worn for others to judge. I wished her dead one time too many. I wonder if she is here. I wonder who she would scream to. I wonder if she would scream to me.
The creep of decay. When the body goes to dust and the earth begins to consume. The stench of the decrepit. It’s not like that here. I would taste the dust. See the decay. Smell the wondrous odors of death before I would accept this eternity of corporeal vacancy.
Because there is nothing.
Not while Death keeps time.
We see them when they remember us. When our names are spoken. When there is a spark to set their mind alight. We can exist again, if only for a moment.
My daughter is too little, armed with an inadequate imagination, forgetful of anything beyond dolls and hugs and coloring books. Hilda was a baby when I left her. Three when I would never come back. She will be twelve before I am nothing more than a wish.
My sister curses me for dying. If only she knew.
Twelve. It is years now. The infrequencies between the time of memories. There is never love. To be loved is to be freed from this. I have been in this place of in between too long for that.
It’s Hilda’s birthday. Candles on a cupcake. Balloons escaped to the ceiling and wrapping paper discarded on the floor. But it isn’t new toys capturing her interest.
“It was your mother’s favorite book.”
My daughter turns the pages, reverent for a moment. Long enough for me to see her. Eyes like mine. Hair like mine. I want to touch her face, to brush the curls aside.
She shivers when I do.
Defiance. She is so like I was. She is reminded and warned. “You will turn out just like your mother, young lady!”
“Damn you, Maria.” My sister whispers this part, as though I won’t hear her say it.
You have damned me already. To the endlessness of nothing. Remember me for a while. I’m lonely. Give me something to see. Even if only a glimpse. The time I pushed you out of the treehouse. Do you remember that? You broke your arm. I said you fell. Mama strapped us both anyway. You for being broken. Me because she always did. Proper girls don’t climb trees.
She rubs her elbow. She remembers. “Damn you,” she whispers again.
You have. This is my eternity.
“If your mother could see you now!”
Hilda is beautiful. Her dress, edged with blush lace and feathers and trim, delicate straps across her shoulders. Her hair with streaks of sun, coiled on top of her head. Corsage of peach roses and satin around her wrist. So grown up. Hilda could not smile any more than she is.
“Did mama go to prom?”
It’s when I made you.
“Probably. I don’t remember,” my sister lies. “Never mind that. Let’s take a picture, sweetheart.”
The hate eats my sister apart. She remembers. It’s all she ever talked about. All that I would ever become. Too young. Too stupid. The county harlot.
Maybe I was. I wanted to be loved.
My sister is dead.
“Anna joins her mother and sister in heaven, may God rest her eternal soul.”
This is not heaven and my sister is not here. Because they loved her. Cancer grows love better than whoring.
My daughter weeps for her, the woman that became her mother. The woman that did not conceive her. Did not bear her. I have never envied my sister more so than in her death. She was loved and so she is free. I am neither light nor darkness, forever stuck in this place of nothing at all. Forgotten far more than I am remembered. Given only glimpses. Never enough to gain freedom from this eternity. I am here and she is not and it is my daughter that bears pain for her instead of me and—
Oh! God, what have I done?
Anna’s photo lays shattered on the floor of the chapel.
Good. Maybe they will remember me now.
“I wish my mother could see her.”
“Both of them.”
I am a grandmother now. She is named Anna Maria. I love her beyond eternity. She is perfect. Her soul is mine to protect.
I will love her so that I may never meet her.
When I hold her hand or stroke her cheek, she does not cry.
“Grandmama,” she whispers.
Hush, sweet child. I’ll tell them.
I take her small hand, Anna Maria in her favorite pajamas, the fuzzy ones with feet, pale pink lambs leaping over moon and stars. Into the hall with her blanket and bear. I throw a book to the floor to wake the old dog.
Bark, I say. And so he does.
“Toddler and Family Dog Save Parents from Fire” the headlines report.
They do not tell them what Anna Maria spoke of, when they asked her why she was out of her bed, waiting in the hall with her best bear, to be rushed down the stairs and out the front door, to stand under the old oak tree watching the house burn, fire hoses dousing the flames in the darkest hours before sunrise.
“Grandmama reads me stories.”
“Your grandma?” My daughter asks, looking at the photo she always kept at her bedside. It is the one thing she saved. It is the only picture she has of herself as a baby, wearing a white christening dress, held in Anna’s arms. Me beside her.
Anna Maria’s tiny finger points to me. “Grandmama.”
For a time, eternity offers the gift of her child mind, sweet and open in innocence, unafraid. We are friends. Anna Maria saves me a seat at her tea table amongst her favorite toys, Teddy and Raggedy-Ann and Yellow Duck and Pooh. I give them voices and she giggles and my heart is alight with joy. She tells me about her day. She tells me her favorite things. She colors pictures for me. Always I smile. Always I am proud. Always I love her.
Never do I say so. She would say it back.
And I want to know her, if just for a little while longer.
“I don’t remember her,” Hilda says. “She died when I was a baby. Your grandmother wasn’t a good woman. It’s what I was always told. Better to forget her. I have.”
My daughter tells the truth.
“I’ll never forget you, mommy. I love you too much,” Anna Maria replies.
There are no more stories. No more tea times. No more pictures. Her innocence is overcome by the burden of impending wisdom. When I touch her cheek, she does not shiver. When I tell her stories, she does not sleep. When I keep her from the traffic, she does not think to wonder the hand that held her back.
I am plunged back into the abyss of non-existence, floating amongst a dull field of vast emptiness. Waiting. The screaming is only in my thoughts.
My daughter curses me by name and I can see everything. It is the first time I would rather have been forgotten.
They are calling for her. For Anna Maria. Their voices are like a song, lifting, inviting, comforting. Light is breaking like sunbeams through afternoon storm clouds. Her invitation. She is tempted. It is more beautiful than any imagining.
I cannot add my heart to the calling. I beg her to stay. I beg her to suffer life. I need her to live in order to set me free.
They tear the child out of her. A child born from lust and loneliness. Some inheritances run deep.
One hundred and three
Anna Maria has children. She has Grandchildren. My daughter is gone. So much time has passed.
“This was your great-great grandmother’s favorite story,” she says. The creases of her eyes show a life of love, happiness, and so much pain. A life I did not witness. A life I couldn’t protect. But she was loved. And that is all I could ever want for her.
An old stuffed bear falls off the shelf. I could not help myself. She smiles.
Anna Marie runs her finger down the spine of the book, “There was a time when I thought…”
She pauses, brushing the dark hair from her grandson’s brow, kissing the spot behind. He smiles at me.
I am filled with joy. I have a new one to look after.
There is brilliance everywhere like glitter. I am music inside. Filling with light.
“…a time I thought I loved—”
He screams. Anna Marie holds him, comforts him, his cries inconsolable. “It’s ok Joe. I’m here. Grandma is here. What is it, love?”
The light wanes. The song drowns to a fading murmur. I am still here. And I am content.
One hundred and six
Joe calls me Gigi, “Because of all the greats,” in my grandmotherly name. It is a moniker I own proudly.
He gives me no rest. The time I have now is exquisite.
“Come see, Gigi. Go with me, Gigi. Hold my hand, Gigi.”
He flies down the ravine on his tricycle, screeching at the top of his lungs like a banshee, “Gigi, watch me!” His somersault lands him on a soft clump of grass.
I almost didn’t catch him.
“Gigi you were supposed to watch me,” he cries, rubbing the scrape on his knee.
Slow down, sweetheart. I will catch you better next time.
“Gigi, tell me a story.”
I tell him the same story every night. I tell him the story of Maria, the guardian of his family for so many generations. She is a legend, I say. To be remembered always. Say her name, and she will come.
Tell your children.
Tell your grandchildren.
Tell them all to remember Maria.
One hundred and seventeen
It has been a long while since Joe has called for me. It has been longer still since Anna Maria has.
“Gigi, please save her,” Joe whispers. “I love her too much.”
“Grandmama, please let them take me,” Anna Maria whispers. “I am so tired.”
I hold Joe’s hand. He closes his eyes and smiles. He knows I am there. He is filled with hope.
I hold Anna Maria’s hand. Tell them to remember me, I say, as I sing her the song for the dying.
“Remember your grandmama,” she whispers. Anna Maria’s soul fills with light, stars to be born and spread across a winter’s night sky.
“I love you,” Joe says to her. “I will always remember you.” He lets go of my hand. He holds hers until she is gone. Holding her longer still. Holding her hoping she will come back.
A part of me leaves with her. Nothingness skulks at my edges.
“Why didn’t you save her,” Joe cries to me.” His face is tear stained and twisted, filled red with rage and sadness. “I called for you. I begged you to help her live and instead…”
I take Joe’s hand. He feels nothing at all.
And I am plunged back into the void.
Two hundred and thirty-eight
“Who is that?”
“It says ‘Maria’.”
“She looks like you.”
I cannot help but to stare. Hair like mine was. Doe-eyes like Hilda’s. Anna Maria’s long neck. Joe’s aquiline nose. We are all there, as if time has offered a kindness to remember us by.
“There’s a family legend about a woman named Maria. Do you think this is her?”
It’s the photo of me. So long ago. My daughter in her christening dress, held in my sister Anna’s arms, with me beside her. The photograph was mended and fixed between glass. Tucked inside my book. Both kept in a bank box, the key passed down through generations.
Aeline is my many times great grand-daughter. She takes my photo to mount on the wall of her home. Sometimes she smiles at me when she walks by. An expression of such sweetness that it stirs my soul. She touches my face with her finger tips. And then my daughter’s. As if to say hello.
She is forty-eight. Too old to hear me. Too old to know I look after her and keep her safe. But she calls me to her anyway. I touch her face when she needs to watch, the truck coming so close. I tell her to look, when she forgets the latch. I hide her things and quiet her alarm to keep her from going when she needs to stay, even if just for moment. To keep her from falling. To keep her from the crash. To keep her from the path of harm.
She is too old to hear me.
“Thank you, Maria,” she whispers. A sly grin graces her face when she says it.
Because she knows I am there.
It is our secret. I won’t tell.
Two hundred and seventy-seven
It is Aeline’s time. I wait to sing for her. The voices are murmuring. Gentle. Their invitation questioning. I hold her hand. I have done this before.
“I have lived a good life, Maria. I am old because of you.” Her voice is bare and pained. But her eyes are alight. “Even though I never knew you, Grandmama, I loved you.”
The tunnel of light. The beckoning voices. They have not come for her. They are here for me.
“Come with me, Maria,” she whispers.
Kelly Claytor currently lives in the Chicagoland area. Her writing experience has been broadly technical, including design guidelines for landscape architecture, and educational materials and policies for healthcare. Kelly’s writing began in earnest after coaxing her kids to compose short stories with her during summer break and realizing she was the only one who actually enjoyed that.