- Gathering Up the Little Gods
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[End Page 42]
She has always loved motion. When her legs stride beneath her and her hands cut the air she imagines the muscle and bone that produce her forward movement. She pictures them like a diagram from Grey's Anatomy, a copy of which she keeps on her bookshelf at home. She walks when she is content or hung-over, or when she wakes up to find the street below her apartment an ugly gray. She walks until her lower back aches so that it matches the rhythm of her heart.
Up through the city she goes, and when she arrives at her studio she paints the yellow of cabs careening past her and the slide of white clouds in the sky. She absorbs these [End Page 43] movements—and the people she passes in blurs of color and the downward slant of rain—then releases them again. She makes her canvases shake.
If Elspeth has imagined growing sick at all, she has thought that lethargy would be the worst part. She has visited homes for the elderly, hospitals where people are attached to beds and chairs by plastic tubing. She has always been claustrophobic in those places and breathed through her mouth in order to avoid the smell of Lysol and piss.
"Is it summertime?" she can remember a bedridden aunt asking her in Polish when she was a child. Her name had been something like Yadwiga or Halina, and she had wanted to go down to the river and swim. "It will be most enjoyable," the old woman kept insisting throughout that visit, as snow fell in great white chunks on the other side of the hospital window.
Today Elspeth is sitting across from a doctor in another hospital, in another decade, but she thinks suddenly of that aunt's papery skin and white hair like a dandelion's halo. She remembers her own mother glancing meaningfully at the nurse, then asking the aunt gently, "Which river?"
And the old woman hadn't answered, but looked troubled by this question, as if she herself should like to know.
"There are aggressive therapies," the doctor tells Elspeth now. "You're young and otherwise healthy."
Had that aunt died then, she wonders? She cannot remember a wake or a funeral, though there were several in her childhood. She tries but cannot see the woman lying waxen in a box, or her photograph on top of a coffin at Gray's Funeral Home. She cannot even remember her name. Perhaps it was Krystyna. Is that what happens [End Page 44] before we die? she thinks now. We forget the names of rivers where we have swum?
The doctor is looking at her expectantly, as if he has asked a question and is waiting for her response. She nods, and he begins again.
She has told nobody about the tests. Not her parents, who live modestly in their leafy corner of Queens, not the friends she meets for drinks and movies and dinners, not the ex-boyfriend with whom she still sometimes sleeps, but amicably and without regret. "This is unusual for me," she had confessed to him only the month before. "Lingering makes me uncomfortable."
The thing, too, has had momentum. The specialist says it has been growing inside her for some time. It has mated with itself and produced babies. Two weeks ago he called the test a precaution and pierced her throat with a needle five times, the stainless steel making her skin burn. He told her not to swallow until he was done, and she watched the ceiling tiles above her. She had turned down the anesthetic because it cost more and, afterward, they joked about the Mets.
In the intervening weeks she had forgotten about the tests. They were certainly the furthest thing from her mind this morning when her clock radio played a song at 8:30 A.M. and light streamed through her window. She sliced a banana into cornflakes, brewed coffee, brushed her teeth. She listened to the news headlines, then looked through her notebook...