Skipping Beats

(These two excerpts come from a longer work called The Letter Writer.)

Dayle’s watch had never stopped. On her fifteenth birthday she’d unwrapped it from a bundle of newspaper (the horoscopes) to find a small brown bag with a ticking inside. Somehow, four years later, her watch had still been ticking, until her June visit to the Cambridge City Hospital emergency room. It had stopped cold. You don’t notice a watch living on your wrist until it dies. You don’t notice a young woman is in trouble until she passes out cold one morning in the middle of the kitchen. The stopping of the watch had disturbed her more than the dehydration that had made her heart skip beats. The ER nurses had tried to get an IV in her arm, but her veins had shrivelled against themselves and now cringed like shadows from a flashlight beam.

‘We need to take off your watch, sweetie,’ Jalea had said, a nurse who, later when all was calm, would tell Dayle stories of her childhood in Lesotho, her young adulthood in South Africa where she had studied to become a nurse, and her relocation to Cambridge, Massachusetts where she would take on her nursing career. She would also be the one who took Dayle’s dry hand and told her, woman to woman, that she should go to the ocean, have an adventure, save herself. She told her to eat and drink. To stop this nonsense. Others had said these words, implied these sentiments, implored her to see reason. Her parents had seen Dayle withering starting in April and into the summer, though she had worn flowy dresses and layers to hide her shrinking frame. Her hair was brittle and had lost its shine and her lips had become chapped and raw. She had stopped putting out her clothes the night before. They’d known she wasn’t eating. They’d told her this; threatened, begged, informed. They had not wanted to pressure, but they’d had to say something. Small things: Dayle, honey, why not have some of these scrambled eggs. Or, Would you like some cookies before you start your horoscopes? The problem: Dayle had made no trouble. She had done the dishes and taken out the trash and read horoscopes for more people than ever, except she’d picked at each meal, and ‘gone to eat at coffee shops,’ lying through her teeth. It was true that they had not insisted nor fought her, though maybe they should have. It was easier to hear coming from Jalea.

Initially, Dayle had clamped her left hand over her watch and wailed, ‘No! I don’t even have any blood! I’m wasting your time!’ It had taken two nurses, a CNA and Dr. Smellings to remove the watch from Dayle’s wrist. Fortunately for them, that had been all the fight she’d had left. She had stopped swinging her arms and grasping at theirs. They couldn’t find a vein in either wrist, so they’d connected the IV through her hand, and Dayle had fainted.

*****

By twenty, Dayle had grown crow’s feet and a light beard. The crow’s feet were from smiling. The subtle beard she’d wanted all her life. It was too light to be clearly noticeable, but if you looked closely or touched her face, there it was.

Dayle had not celebrated a birthday since she turned seven. After eating a peanut butter sandwich, she’d licked the envelope that carried a thank-you card to her Aunt Leonora for a pair of red shoes Dayle would wear once before suffering blisters like a curse. Leonora had died of anaphylactic shock due to a peanut allergy. From then on, Dayle had associated her birthday with death, loss and peanut butter. No more birthday parties, no more peanut butter.

Dear Auntie L,

Thank you so much for the shoes. They are so red! Red is my second favourite color. Orange is my favourite color. The shoes still smell like –

You. They’d smelled like her aunt: lavender, borage lotion, copper. Dayle kept them in her closet, mostly unworn, and sniffed them when she was bored, or very happy, or very sad. Their scent could excite, punish, comfort. The shoes had certainly punished on the day of the wake and the funeral. Aunt Leonora would not have wanted a dour gathering, so everyone had worn everyday clothing and passed a rain stick around a circle to take turns saying nice things about the newly dead, Leonora. When Dayle’s turn had come her mouth had felt gooey and stuck. She had let the rain stick trickle while she licked her lips and tried to remember how to speak. Everyone had been patient with the seven year old in red shoes. Dayle – who had felt in a very basic way responsibility for everyone being together – had begun by thanking everyone for coming. Everyone had chuckled, oohed and awed.

‘I killed Aunt Lenora with my peanut butter letter, and I’m sorry.’

Dayle had passed the rain stick, which had saved everyone from the silence.

By twenty, Dayle had crow’s feet and a light beard. The crow’s feet were from smiling. The most reticent of her parents’ clients became pliable should Dayle smile on them. Her father had realised this when Dayle was still a small child, peeking at people from under the tablecloth she liked to tuck herself under during readings. Tarot readings had been her favourite because of the way the cards whispered when they were set on the table. It had been there that Dayle learned to keep secrets. By the time she had reached ten, her father would write her a selection of horoscopes that Dayle would choose from based on her gut reading of the person sitting across the table.  Something about a child medium had impressed people. She was a natural interpreter of the horoscopes. She had no interest in learning tarot or birth charts, and by 12 she had no longer needed her father’s horoscopes. She could conceive her own for each new person. She had liked it better this way. It had felt better. She had learned to smile first, listen next, and, if need be, speak. She’d write in careful cursive on a notecard so the client could easily take it with them.

Today it would be wise to be on the lookout for distractions. When you feel yourself drifting off, take a deep breath and bring yourself back to the task at hand. This is especially important for people who are cooking or are in the nursing profession.

Or, Shake it out a little bit. You carry tension between your brows. There is nothing more important than your health and connection to your deep purpose today. Worry will get you nowhere.

Around the time she had begun writing the horoscopes, Dayle had made a wish for a beard. Her father had one that was deep and long. Its name was Midnight, and it was like another member of the family.

‘Papa, Midnight’s stuck in your zipper.’

‘Calvin, get Midnight out of my soup.’

Like some little girls, Dayle wanted to be just like her father. One full moon, Dayle had planted a weeping willow seed in a pot she kept on her windowsill. She had watered and looked after it until the new moon, by which time a poke of green had appeared in the moist soil. At midnight on the next full moon, Dayle had eaten the sprout and devised her own spell.

Lovely willow weep and whine

            Weep my face a beard so fine.

She had cried tears of joy the morning a few weeks later when she had noticed a subtle fuzz around her mouth and on her upper lip. It was not obvious, except to those who stood very close, or happened to touch her face. Neither had been frequent when she was a teen.

Image: Paul Sableman

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author picKaiyuh Cornberg was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she continues to reside after living with her family in Taiwan for fifteen years. Her passions are writing, cooking and outdoor activities like hiking and skiing.

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