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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Lost World

 

by Michelle Shine

 

 

 

The doctor looks at the floor and scratches his head.   His hair sticks to his forehead in clumps.   The weather is hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement and he has come all the way from Santa Domingo for this:

 

"There are lemon drops in the sky, tinged with purple, and sometimes the clouds are brown.   The stars can be red, green, or blue, or all three, depending on the night."

 

He looks up again and only nods.   The girl is fifteen, not eight or nine; far too old to be having such fantasies.   But the case is complex.   She is tall.   Tall enough to touch her hand to the ceiling whilst still bending her elbow.   In this small house with too few rooms and too many walls she looks incongruous.   Although her words are preposterous, in some ways, she is beyond her years and this makes it very hard to understand.

 

She leans over in the tiny kitchen and ends up on all fours peering up at him like a cat.   He turns round to look over his shoulder into the darkness of a bedroom far too small to sleep a family of four.

 

It is just him and her.   Her parents sit in the street on cheap plastic chairs.   He can hear them.   They talk with a friend about the wonders of the world and how all their troubles will be over now the expensive doctor has come.

 

When he turns back to face her she is gathering crumpled newspapers into a pile.   He waits for some time and the pile becomes mountainous.   His own breath is audible, grazing the air.   Echoes of his childhood asthma fill the room.   She stands before him, licking her hands and molding the paper structure with feigned concentration.   There is barely enough room for him to breathe.   Each time he inhales her waist brushes against his chest or the other way around.   Waves of heat rush through him.   He tries not to sway.   When he looks in the mirror at home he sees himself as a short rectangle.   His mother describes him as brilliant but squat.   He feels squat now and backs out the room into another where the TV flickers silently.   Another rectangle, one of sunlight, carpets the floor.   The grandmother sits in a shadow with her peanut-shell skin, chewing her gums.  Her eyes dart at him like a lizard’s tongue.   He wishes he had a hat to raise but he trips up instead on his way out through the space that should be a front door.   

 

Six eyes beam at him.   He loosens his tie and shuffles like a schoolboy before standing to authoritative attention.   

 

"Your daughter has a discernible complaint.   I will write you a prescription to take to the pharmacy."

 

"Thank you, Doctor.   Thank you for coming to see her.   We knew you would know the cure."

 

The doctor is alarmed at their broad smiles and coughs into his fist.   The man who spoke stands up.   He is taller than the doctor, dusty, wearing faded cotton, and a grey felt hat.   He puts one hand on the doctor’s shoulder and the other in his palm.   The doctor feels well-used bank notes tickling his skin.   He doesn’t count the money but shoves it quickly into his pocket and he doesn’t look up.

 

"There is no cure."

 

He turns around, hesitates for a moment then starts to walk away.

 

***

 

The tall girl lies on a mattress in the dark bedroom.   The father pulls aside a faded striped curtain.   A strip of light falls across her eyes.   She doesn’t blink.

 

"You must take your medicine."

 

The girl shakes her head vigorously from side to side.

 

"It will make you feel better."

 

                "I don’t feel unwell."

 

"But there is something wrong; the doctor has said so."

 

"There’s nothing wrong with me."

 

The girl swings her legs over the side of the bed.   They are like strings of buckwheat spaghetti.   She pushes past the man, her father, whose shoulders have been rounded now for quite some years.   She will go for one of her walks.   Where she ambles he doesn’t know.   No one seems to see her on her travels.   It is as if she is a ghost.   He imagines her in the Ecological Area, running through the trees on her long spindly legs, hooting at the monkeys like you’re not supposed to do.   He tries not to think of her down on the beach with boulders tied to her ankles as she shuffles to the sea.   

 

He can sense the mother’s presence behind him.   He turns round.   She wipes her hands continuously on a piece of cloth.   She is dusty too.   Over time her clothes grow thinner as her body expands, and now her rolls of flesh are like mounds of yeasty dough under a damp cloth.   There is a tiny piece of nut stuck to her lower lip.

 

She pokes a finger at her temple.   

 

"There is something wrong in her head."

 

He sighs.

 

"The doctor agrees with you."

 

 "Did she take her medicine?"  


                The father, the elder of the two, but the more youthful, lies on the indents his daughter has made on the mattress.   The mother’s lips smack together as if she was a fish.   The tiny piece of nut falls to the floor.

 

"It’s all your fault."

 

He lifts his head to look at her.

 

"I married you."

 

 She shakes her hands at him.

 

"If you had never touched me in the first place, I wouldn’t have this problem."

                                                                                                               

It’s an old argument.   He turns to face the wall.

 

***

 

A torturous tap, tap, tap wakes him from sleep.   He lights a candle and takes it through to the front room.   The TV still flickers.   The old woman still sits.   It seems she only slumbers sometimes in the afternoons.   Outside the moon is full and throws its dim light around.   The stars are the color of bleached bone.   They dance in a midnight sky.   

 

She stands outside the house with a torch in one hand and with the other knocks the heel of her shoe against the exterior wall.   

 

"Listen."

He sees pale turquoise paint crack and splinter, dust clouds, and bits of gravel that avalanche.   He grabs her arm and pulls her inside, through to the kitchen where a steel kettle gleams proudly on a makeshift hob.

 

He lights two more candles.   Her lips are swollen and in her hair there are twigs and leaves.   Two buttons have been torn from her blouse.   A sheet rustles in the bedroom.   The girl and the father lock eyes like horns.   The mother comes in.   The room is too small for the three of them.   They feel each other’s heat.

 

"She takes after your family." 

 

The mother spits a globule of gelatinous fluid.   It lands on the father’s naked foot.   He stares, alternately, at the two women in his life.   The mother grabs her crochet shawl, the one with the pattern that is now one big hole, and walks out of the house.   The father brings a candle up close to his daughter’s face.

 

"You wanted this to happen to you?"

 

               The girl lifts her chin and tries to nod.

 

***

 

The mother is in the big white church in the middle of the square opposite the house.   It should be closed at this time but no one ever locks the door.   She has lit several candles and muttered many prayers.   Now she’s on her knees, fingering the strings that hang off her shawl.   Shadows are monsters but she is oblivious.   One tear rolls over the ridge of her lower lid and melts into the flagging skin on her cheek.   The father spies her like this, through a hole in the wall, on his way to a friend’s house; the one who shared fairy tales about a wondrous world.   

 

The friend and the father drink beer in the front room of another small dwelling while the outside walls blister and peel cerise paint.   They sit at a card table with no cards, just a small bottle of beer before each of them.   A bare light bulb hangs down from a long wire.   The friend likes to see what he eats.   

 

The floor has many ants; at night they are all camouflaged, but it is impossible not to remember they are there.   There are heaps of dirt everywhere.   The friend is a widower.   He lives alone.   He doesn’t live to sweep.

 

"She won’t take her medicine."

 

"Maybe it’s better.   The drugs killed Marianna."

 

"You don’t know that."

 

"I do know that.   Day after day.   Night after night.   That is all I saw.   There is a doctor in Santa Cristo.   He’s different from the others.   He’s old.   He comes from the lost world."

 

"Maybe I will take her."

 

"You should take her.   I kept saying that about Marianna; maybe I should take her, maybe I should take her, but I never did."

 

"I will take her."

 

"Yes, I know, you’ve said that before."

 

The mother says there is talk but she has not heard it.   She says people stop their conversation wherever she goes and that is how she knows.   He asks around.   There are many tales.   The most often sung are of a beautiful young wife who spends her life in a conservatory talking to parrots.   The birds were a gift from the physician in Santa Cristo.   He saved her from suicide when she discovered she was barren.   

 

On the beach looking out to sea he sits beside a woman.   She says that the medic held her hand whilst telling her she was going to die.   She chuckled.   He had said that the problem was in being human and it was a complaint they had in common.   The father stares at the ocean.

 

He stands by the empty counter at the bakery and looks through to the kitchen.   A man’s rotund stomach bounces as he throws a lump of dough onto a marble slab.   Flour puffs upwards, whitens his hair, and his words.

 

"There is no doubt, no doubt, he will make it better."

 

"I should come back for the bread."

 

The father takes his daughter to Santa Cristo.   It’s a long way and very expensive.   They had to sell the TV and the kettle.   

 

"Your mother’s losing her sight.   It’ll be fine.   She can listen to your gossip instead."

      

"Men should provide and you take away!"

     

 "You could scare the birds with those arms."

     

"What arms?   What arms?"

 

She doesn’t know how to laugh.   He contemplates this as his body is jostled on the train.   He has bought seats for himself and his daughter while other passengers stand.   He doesn’t feel guilty; he must hold onto her wrist to keep her tame.   She pulls it away, he grabs it again; it is like a game that they play.   

 

"There’s nothing wrong with me, why are we going there?"

 

Her words are snaky; will he die before she realizes that he means her no harm?

 

"You are impossible."

 

"Fuck you!"

 

"Shh, please, there are other people . . ."

 

He gesticulates wildly and leans over to breathe words in her ear.

 

"That’s why we are going to see the doctor from the lost world; he will understand . . . about the purple sky."

   

 They’d been walking for hours.   Neither of them had travelled to the big city before—crowds of people that don’t look where they’re going—hooting cars.   She says the air is full of black bits and her whole body trembles.   Neither feels like eating, he hopes that afterwards it won’t be too late.   It’s late enough already, in a maze of streets where they lose themselves, find themselves and eventually arrive.   The father is surprised when he sees where the doctor lives; a big, white building like a church without a steeple, two floors and an equally blazing front door.   The father hesitates for a moment before ringing the bell.   A woman appears before them.

 

"We’ve come to see the doctor.   We’ve come a long way."

 

 "Yes, I can see that.   Wait here."

 

The door becomes a barricade against them.   The father’s hands move around the rim of his hat.   The daughter’s eyes hop like rabbits on the run.   They wait.   He wonders if the woman has forgotten them.   He wonders if they should go, where they should go.   The door opens.


"Please come in."

 

The woman leads them through a wooden hallway to a wooden room with dull electric light.   The doctor comes forward to greet them extending his hand like an old friend.   He wears a dark suit with a string bow tie.   He has a crepe face and his hair is a bush of white dandelion.

 

"What is the problem; is it with your daughter?"

 

"Yes, she is a problem."

 

"Come sit down here and tell me my dear, what is your problem?"

 

"Pain hugs my body from the inside."

 

"What type of pain?"

 

"I can’t explain."

 

"Can you describe the feeling?"

 

"Like ripped gossamer."

 

Behind his desk the doctor lifts his eyes to the ceiling like a saint as he fiddles with a pen.

 

"And this pain, what does it make you do?"

 

"I run away a lot."

 

"And what else?"

 

"I see things.   Yellow and purple in the sky.   The stars are red, green, and blue.   They say it’s untrue."

 

"She builds mountains out of old newspapers in the middle of the kitchen and licks them.   Sometimes she just stares and stares and stares.   Doctor, what do you think?"

 

    The doctor checks his watch and walks over to the ornate grandfather clock.   With one finger, he moves the minute hand forward a notch.   The father hesitates, then continues talking.

 

"As a baby she constantly banged her head against the side of her basket.   As a small child she screamed and wriggled if anyone should pick her up.   She doesn’t have friends... "

 

 A woman knocks and asks the doctor, "What time I should prepare the tea?"

 

"Prepare it now and then leave it for me until I am ready."

 

He returns behind his desk and pulls his jacket cuffs one by one.   Pushes a pad of paper towards the girl and offers her his pen.   She grabs it, sways rhythmically, and with unruly hair falling over her face, stabs the paper with the nib many times.   She grunts and spits.   The father winces.   The doctor’s eyes are steady.   The girl covers her upper lip with her tongue and settles to depict him in with a long beard and a dove on his shoulder using a million little dots.   The doctor leans over to see what she is doing.   The father looks to the doctor.

 

 "She is different."

 

"She is different, yes, because she is an artist.   Just leave her be.   Let her create.   She needs no medication."

 

***

 

The girl sleeps.   The father lies in the other bed and the mother moves her warm body up close to his.   Her hushed voice is sweet but with an aftertaste like aspartame.   

 

"She is something special; she’s an artist!"

 

She smiles up at him and grabs his arm.   There is a faraway look in her eyes.   He pats her hand, sidles away from her, and goes to sit outside on a chair in the dark.   The grandmother snores.   The crickets saw.   The father sips what is left of the Christmas wine.