As Papa lifts them, the lantern-lit river bream have all the colors of the five-a-penny candy in T-Dot’s store. These flash bright on their cheeks and backs and stiffened spiky fin-tips as he twists out trotline hooks. Then fade fast as fireflies.
Bony silver-green meat is what splats, flopping, to join my wrinkly feet in the johnboat’s warm bilge.
Would you look at that, Papa says. Hold the lantern higher, Lizzie.
In the river a ruby eye winks.
Old cottonmouth, Papa says. He must be following our light.
A long S of scale-sheathed muscle shows behind the eye. The S pushes, from its apex near the boat, a silvery V in the black water, the S and the V trailing us, always in motion but somehow unchanging. In front of these letters one eye then the other catches the kerosene glow, winks out.
* * *
It’s Bill’s eyes I feel now. This good man who deserves everything fine, and will have it again. He’s watching me labor for air.
I have no strength to turn my head toward him. But there’s no need.
A while ago I called him with a throat-sound, then spelled with my eyes C-A-N-T-B-R-E-A-T-H-E on the letter-board. I looked only at those letters. Not at his face there, amid smudged clear acrylic and the big white characters. He wanted more words from me, and some time passed before he lowered the board.
I heard him put the kettle on and phone, voice low. He returned with his tea, and told me Dr. Grand said I should relax. This is normal. This will pass.
If I could love Bill more, I would have in that moment, because of the strength in his smile.
It’s here, then.
No hospitalization, no intubation. Those were my wishes. Are. Still, there’s a writhe in my belly I must manage.
I feel so light. My skin-and-bones body seems to rise from the valley it molded in this dear old rust-colored chair, where most of an impossible eleven years has passed. At diagnosis the first neurologist, the only one of the three who ever smiled in our presence, told us two years. Though you never know, she said.
I claimed so much more, Bill says, because I’m stubborn, and would see the kids grown.
Yes. Donny, my beautiful youngest, is fourteen, taller than Bill. I worry most for him. But he’s strong enough. He digs into things, especially the worst things, until he finds where laughter lives. I picture him traversing burrows and chambers, as in the fantasy games he adores, hunting laughter. Sometimes his finding it has saved us all.
Tim and Shannon and Mary, adult or practically so, have been leavened, much more than wild-spirit Donny, by my illness. I know they’re angry, still, all three of them. They believe in fairness, and explanations. Here our youngest, the gamer, is wiser.
Bill pretends to watch a game on TV now, the hypnotic back-and-forth of a soccer match, rather than my respiration. We’ve said everything. We said it all years before they brought the computer my eye-blinks operated, to speak sparse words in that 2001 voice, and give me the Web, too. Until this last year, when even my eyelids weakened, leaving only the letter-board.
We said everything, and we had everything. We had everything fine. And Bill will have it again.
* * *
By its sound, Hypoxia might be a Greek island. Of course I scouted this destination long ago on that computer. The way we once did with Fodor’s and Lonely Planet. I’ve relived our family journeys, endlessly. Donny, who was too young, doesn’t remember. But soon his own wanderings will begin, and I hope they’re sweet.
I do wish Bill could know this last small side-trip of mine. In the boom of his laugh, I’d hear his delight at the thought of my unblemished, untroubled girl’s body, returned to me. At Lizzie watching stars play hide-and-seek behind the limbs and leaves of river-fed trees, strong lungs bringing clean smells of plowed bottomland and Papa’s sweat and fresh-caught fish, ears tuned to the little boat’s creaks.
Thrilled and scared to see old cottonmouth. Swimming after what? Surely not just our light.
Papa was dead a year past that night on the river. And Mama, in and out of “hospitals,” mind too delicate for this world, never got out after he was gone, and I went to kind Aunt Rose. Until Bill. Lucky, then luckier.
When I remember Mama I think of her round lively body, never still the rare times she was home, swirling dresses gone pale from washings. Even in sleep she swirled the sheets, Papa said.
Swirling lively body, and a mind that weakened and failed. The bitter portion of my ration was to know the reverse.
In truth, I did not accept, do not accept, this portion. No more, I suppose, than Mama or Papa or the river bream accepted theirs.
But peace, a grace, arrived in spite of me. That I did accept, long ago.
I rise still farther. I see all my penny-candy colors. Beautiful.
Michael Wade is a writer in North Carolina. His fiction has appeared in Easy Street and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He has worked as a journalist, critic, research scientist, and biotech executive, among other things. Find him on Twitter @michael_mwade.