Tuesday, May 28, 2019

White Whale

("Moby Dick" by Ilya Nimo)

Angie read to her father, as he sat in the hospital bed she and Sadit had wheeled into the downstairs library, worrying the edge of his sheet with his fingers. His pajama top kept slipping off the knot of his shoulder, while his hair stood up like thistles.     

“Who’s that?” he said, as Ahab quickened the harpoon toward its target.

“Angie. I’m your daughter, Dad,” she said neatly, before picking up the thread of the story again.  

He looked at her with suspicion, fingers working double-time, eyes flicking around the wood-paneled room, dark but for the slant of light admitted by its one, westerly window. Angie tried to see what he was seeing because she knew he was lost, and needed grounding. 

They both settled on the picture of her mother, sitting beside the bottles, ointments and tissues on the bedside table. His brow cleared, fingers going quiet.

“Where’s Molly?”

“Out shopping,” she lied. 

Ahab launched the harpoon. The whale was struck. Her father set upon the sheet once more. 

She shut the book. The sound of the grandfather clock filled the room, as lonely as a sea. When Angie opened her eyes, her mother’s Staffordshire dog figurines stared past her. There hadn’t been a fire beneath that mantelpiece for two years now, but flames had roared there on Christmas Eves and winters past, dancing to her father’s directives. She could nearly feel their heat.

“You haven’t seen them in five months,” she said. 

He ignored her.  

“You haven’t seen your grandchildren in five months. The last time Kamal came into this room, you called him ‘boy’ and accused him of stealing the remote. I slapped you.” She looked at him. “I slapped you hard, old man.”

His eyes skirted hers, but she could feel him listening. 

“Right across the mouth, same as you did with us kids. And I bet I felt the way you felt back then. Big and terrible, both at once.” She took a breath. “Except—I’ve thought about that slap every day since. And you—what did you ever think about, Dad?”

The book slid from her hands onto the floor.  

“Hate came so easy for you. I almost envied you that. To hurt so casually one never had to suffer for it—or feel guilty—or—”

His watery eyes blinked onto hers.   

“Care.” 

Standing, she walked to the hearth, feeling his eyes on her back. 

“It doesn’t even matter anymore,” she said, laughing a little. “Don’t you see? None of it has any weight.

It was true. He would never atone for crimes he couldn't remember. He wasn’t even her father anymore, really. Just a machine on the brink of powering off.

And it wasn’t pain she wished on him. It was knowledge. Ownership. Impossible things, like wishing for the moon, or a different name.  

Her eyes drifted to the window. Outside, on her parents’ back lawn—in view of the large, colonial house her small family had moved into, until this nightmare was ended—stood an albino fawn on the cusp of adulthood. One second it was there, a white ghost behind a vale of thinning trees, and the next it was gone. 

Hunting season would start in two weeks.

Angie’s eyes filled with tears.  

“I remember,” she said, her voice softer now. “I remember being two or three years old, and you carrying me around on your shoulders. I don’t know where we were. Only that it was high up, and I was scared.”

She walked over to him. Taking the comb beside her mother’s picture, she tried to tamp down the white fright of hair on his head, and failed. 

“I didn’t want you to put me down, Dad. You so seldom touched us. You were so rarely in the mood for me. I understood that, even then.” She placed the comb back on the table and sat on the edge of his bed. “But I still remember the pressure of your hands around my shins, holding me up—on top of the world—as I clung to your hair and tried very hard to be brave.” 

She looked at this man, her father.  

Reaching out, she pressed her hand against his cool, dry cheek. He flinched, then relaxed, the sound of time beating against their backs, pushing them toward sea. 


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