by Larry Narron
I walked down the long empty hall to my father’s room, thinking about the visions I’d had of him the night before, and all the other nights before, a specter haunting my dreams, covered in ashes, gray-eyed and wrinkled, hiccupping soot as he licked his lips and smiled at me, mumbling the unspeakable as he came closer, rising up at the foot of my bed. In the East, they call it the demon sitting on one’s chest. Those of the special talents, when they were close to the periphery of sleep would see them suddenly appearing, a little man made out of shadow, standing there at the foot of the bed, and when they saw him, they were paralyzed with fear. You literally can’t move, like when the mind wakes up far before the body, and the limbs—even the lungs—ignore all the body’s ordinary commands to move. The sense of powerlessness might be compared to drowning, I imagine.
Anyway, I wasn’t paralyzed now. I was walking down the hall to my father’s room, ready to face whatever I found in there.
I knocked on the door and let myself in. My father didn’t hear me approach. He was sitting on the far edge of his bed, facing away from me, watching TV, some History Channel show about flying saucers where they were interviewing pilots who said they’d seen them zipping over Europe during the Second World War—foo fighters, they called them.
The afternoon sunlight was coming in through the window directly behind the TV, the rays making what little white hair my father still had left on his head shimmer like the frail yet brilliant feathers of an ancient bird grown so thin that they had been loosened from the skin. He was like a weathered angel in the light, a shape that seemed to defy his nightly incarnations in my bedroom.
I noticed a little book about the rosary on his bedside pillow. I wondered when he’d decided to convert to Catholicism, or if he just suddenly found little religious trinkets comforting in the confusing, muddled landscape of old age. Maybe, in his mind, he’d always been a Catholic. My father tended to imagine things in order to fill in the gaps in memory that had been appearing with greater frequency and range in the years since he’d been admitted to this place. Oftentimes the made-up things were more real to him than the things that actually happened, the things he couldn’t remember had happened, or the things he refused to remember.
Hello? I said, trying to get my father’s attention. Mr. Wernick?
My father turned and smiled at me. The pale blue cores of his eyes still shone through the foggy gray layer that had clouded over them both. Nurse Lucy, he said, flicking off the TV with the remote and tossing it onto the bed, we meet again. He stood and walked around the foot of the bed toward me. You look beautiful, my dear, as usual.
My father hugged me and I hugged him back the best I could. I was surprised by the warmth in his hands, his arms, his body, and I could tell that his body was not made out of shadow, but of flesh—a real man with blood in him that was still warm and flowing, wanting to pump to his heart for a little while longer, still. Even so, I didn’t understand how anything warm could be coming from him. The skin on his hands was spotty; it hung loose on his bones. Finally he let go and sat back down on the bed, facing me. I put my purse down on the floor and sat down on the chair across from him, against the wall.
And call me Sal, my father said. You know the drill.
I did know the drill—I’d been visiting him at least twice a month since he’d gotten sick. I looked out the open window behind my father on the far side of the room. Between the transparent white drapes that had been pulled aside, the hills of Fairfield were yellow, turning golden as the sun went down behind them. The green oaks lay scattered from each other in the golden hills. I wondered how anything could grow like that—alone, separated from all the others of its kind.
That’s a very pretty skirt you’re wearing, my father said, pointing and smiling. You look as beautiful as my wife did on her wedding day. Of course, she’s dead now, he added, still smiling.
I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Wernick.
He shrugged. Oh, that’s all right, he said. It’ll happen to all of us. I came to terms with that a long time ago—I was only seventeen. His smile faded. He folded his hands in his lap and looked down at his fingers for a moment. I couldn’t think of anything to say. But then he looked up.
Well, Nurse, he said, his smile reappearing mysteriously as he sat back down on the bed, you look just lovely, just like some of the girls from the war. There were so many beautiful girls in the war, he said. Have a seat.
Without any warning at all I lifted the hem of my skirt and moved my knee out so he could see the exposed tan flesh of my inner thigh. I pointed to the cigarette burns there, keeping my eyes locked on his.
He looked down at my thigh. There were a lot of beautiful girls in the war, he said again, this time with the remote and detached, ethereal monotone of someone talking in his sleep.
Mr. Wernick, I said, closing my legs and pulling my skirt back down over my knees, do you think we can try it again today? That is, if you’re comfortable?
He looked up suddenly. At that moment he had the appearance of someone trying to come to their senses after being shaken out of a deep sleep. Always comfortable, he said, and lay back down on the bed, closing his eyes. He pushed the rosary book to his side and laced his fingers together over his stomach. He let out a huge sigh. Kind of suits me, if you know what I mean.
Certainly, I said. Try to relax, Mr. Wernick.
He did try, and I proceeded to put him into a deep, deep sleep by reciting the little mantras we’d thought up together. I wasn’t sure if hypnosis would make him remember anything—it hadn’t so far—but I was desperate to keep trying, to do my best to help him recollect the past. Perhaps it would require more than just showing him cigarette burns.
Once I’d gotten him into the trance I said, Tell me about your daughter. Tell me what you remember about Cynthia.
He shifted on the bed. His eyelids wrinkled and it seemed he really was trying to remember something. I looked at my father and was startled when I saw how old he looked; it seemed to occur to me suddenly and all at once. As he squeezed his already closed eyes even more tightly shut, his eyelids resembled the tightly twisted knots in the middles of ancient trees.
Somebody’s daughter, he said.
I waited. Yes? I said, when he wouldn’t go on.
Silence. Then he said, We’d taken a hill.
I didn’t understand. A hill? I tried to remember anything about a hill.
We’d taken a hill, he said again, and we were in the trees. The village was burning. McCormick had already torched it, and whole place was on fire. We used to mow them all down, you see, without thinking one bit about it. At first it was just the enemy, of course. But then it wasn’t clear anymore who was the enemy. Nothing made any sense. We were so tired and it wasn’t clear. No sleep, the way you get after killing, what it does to you.
Silence. I waited for him to continue. Finally I had to ask him: What about somebody’s daughter? Whose daughter was she? We seemed to finally be getting to the point and I hoped he would finally face it.
My father sighed, his eyelids twisting up even more in the trance. I was in the trees, he said, walking between the flames. I could hear McCormick and the others calling me. I was still looking for survivors, anyone we could take as prisoners.
He stopped for a little while. I just sat there, looking at him. I didn’t know where he was going with this, but somehow I knew that, whatever he was going to tell me, it wouldn’t be fantasy; it wouldn’t be about the Rosary, our mantras, my assumed identity as Nurse Cindy.
I focused my attention on the pained look on my father’s face and I almost wanted to wake him up. I wanted to distract him from whatever it was he was in the process of trying to remember. I thought he might start crying. And besides, I wanted to bring him back to try getting him to talk about me. But I couldn’t speak, except to urge him to continue telling whatever story this was from the war.
The little girl, he said suddenly, walked right up to me through the burning trees. She was wearing this brown dress with little straps, but the straps had slipped off of her shoulders. The dress was coming off of her, peeling off, you could see quite a bit. The flames were going up on both sides of her, the smoke rising into the sky. I could see the huts of the village burning behind her. It was her village. I looked at the little girl and she looked at me, just standing there with her dress coming off. She had those dark eyes they all have. They just looked right inside me. But they weren’t studying me or anything. I looked back and tried to see inside her. I couldn’t. There were just these dark eyes that wouldn’t let up. He paused, let out a long heavy breath as if he hadn’t realized he’d been holding it in and needed to let it out now. But I remember, he said, thinking it was somebody’s daughter. She had to be, didn’t she? But she was all alone by herself and the village was burning, the heat making the sky quiver the way it does at airports when the planes are getting ready to take off on the runway. The girl…she had to have been only about six or seven. I remember how I raised my pistol and pointed it at her. I don’t know why, but she just stood there and kept looking at me like nothing had happened. She was somebody’s daughter, I kept telling myself. Where were her parents? Were they burning somewhere? Where’s your mommy and daddy? I said. But of course she just kept looking at me; she didn’t understand. Finally, I lowered my pistol. I thought she might run away then, but she just went on with those eyes of hers. I remember thinking maybe I should take her with me, back to the others. We could find a medic or something. I remember how I thought I could get her out of there—I could save her life, if I really wanted to. But then I thought about how McCormick and the others would think I was crazy, how they’d tell me we couldn’t just take some little girl away with us. And I thought how it didn’t matter anyway, how her parents and whatever brothers and sisters she might have had were already burning. We’d killed everyone. Then, there was an awkward moment, I remember, when I tried hard to say something more. I really wanted so say something. But I didn’t know what. Then I just turned on my heel and started walking back through the burning trees. I could feel the girl’s black eyes on the back of my head, burrowing, watching me retreat through the black smoke in the trees that started billowing up with the flames, covering everything.
My father stopped talking. He just lay there quietly, almost like he was sleeping. I watched the steady rise and fall of his chest beneath his shirt. Outside, between the window’s white curtains, the sun was going down beyond the hills, their gold flaming out into brilliant reds and oranges. The gnarled trees darkened.
Nurse Cindy, my father abruptly said. Are you still there? He didn’t open his eyes. But he had asked me this strange question—if I was there. At that moment something strange dawned on me: I realized right then that he wasn’t in a trance at all, that he couldn’t be in a trance and ask me a question like that. He had merely pretended to be hypnotized, perhaps so he could tell me this story he wouldn’t want to express or even acknowledge while he was awake. Had he been faking the trance all these times I’d come to see him? I wasn’t sure. He hadn’t told me anything like this story until now.
I’m right here, Mr. Wernick, I assured him. The sound of my voice seemed to put him at ease.
Both of us were quiet for a long while. It was apparent my father wasn’t going to say anything more.
After a while, I said, When you hear the sound of the door closing, Mr. Wernick, you are going to wake up.
Supine on his bed, my father nodded in his fake hypnotized state. Okay, he said.
You can watch TV, I said, until you get tired. There’s something on about UFOs. I won’t be here when you wake up.
I picked up my purse from the floor and stood. I was about to head for the door, but something told me I should stay. I just stood there and looked down at my father lying there on his bed, the sunset spilling through the window onto his bed. I thought I should say something, maybe about the burns, but I didn’t know what exactly. Finally I just reached over and picked up the rosary book and flipped through it. I knew it was filled with mantras I’d never want to familiarize myself with; it didn’t offer me the kinds of false memories I needed. I put it in his hands and his fingers closed over it firmly, his eyes still closed, his expression still unchanging. In that moment, he might as well have been lying in a coffin.
I turned and walked out the door, closing it softly behind me. The long white hall outside his room was still empty. I walked down the hall and into the lobby. Nurse Cindy, who’d let me in, whose name I shamelessly assumed during these visits to my father, was gone, but there was a receptionist behind the front desk. I didn’t look at her, didn’t sign out, just walked past her and out the door into the soft evening light. The dark sunlight was shining on the asphalt, making the shadows lengthen as I walked across the parking lot toward my car. A part of me wanted to go back, to ask him once more if he could at least try to remember me, what he did to me. But the truth was…I was scared. I was afraid that, if he did remember, and he said my name, I would look at him and wouldn’t be able to recognize him at all. It wouldn’t be my father there anymore, just someone made out of shadow, someone who could paralyze with a stare.
Having previously supported himself by sorting mail, spinning signs, and washing windows, Larry Narron (after graduation from UC Berkeley), now lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally appeared in Issue 50 of Palomar College’s literary journal, Bravura. It is republished with the author’s permission.