Nonfiction / Faye Srala
:: Unspoken ::
Sister, can I come in? The door opens slightly, partially obstructed by furniture behind it. Yapping dogs come running. Down, DOWN! STOP IT, you yell. Somewhere inside a TV blares a commercial and the parrot who learned how to bark long ago adds to the cacophony. The cats arrive, their lethargy having been defeated by their curiosity. I take small steps into your house, careful not to step on little paws; they are not so careful with me. I try to get closer to you for a hug but give up in the brown and black eddy swirling below my knees.
Can we talk? My mind is muddled. Wispy images flicker, like a photo abandoned in a damp basement. Water spots obscure portions, and the edges blur. Shards of broken glass pulse fractured images; a man, legs planted wide, his fists clenched, leans into a woman screaming. Neither are whole, they are distorted by fuzzy edges of the same torn picture, pieces are missing. Can you remember? I ask, was it real? Stop it, you yell – the dogs are chasing the cats. Stop it, stop it,the parrot chimes in from her perch in the corner. Fragments of improbable scenes flicker in my mind. They seethe and froth, just out of the corner of my eye, slinking, sneaking, and sulking. They want out – you open the door and fourteen animals sprint for the backyard. You fix yourself a drink and ask if I want one too.
I sit at the dining table and fidget while I wait, carefully crafting my opening words. I part the drapes beside me a little. A welcome blade of sunlight cuts a yellow swath through the dimness illuminating floating particles of dirt and fur rearranging themselves. Unopened UPS deliveries lining the walls come into focus; throw rugs and precariously stacked junk mail complete the towers, and I wonder in what way the forgotten specters of our past manifest themselves in my life. Neither of us sleep. I was well into my twenties when I realized the gaunt dark and hollow eyes of insomnia wasn’t just a genetic attribute. I take a sip of the drink you hand me and wince at the glass of iced vodka with a splash of orange juice.
I need to know. We can speak about it now, can’t we? Surely you can explain why my childhood is veiled behind a shroud, like a body unfit for viewing. Do you know how hungry I was, or that I was four going on five when our father asked me to kiss his…, That’s enough, STOP IT, you rise to break up a cat fight. The parrot starts to sing her ABCs in a crackling falsetto.
Your pets, they found sanctuary with you after mistreatment and neglect. My splintered memories, like these animals, need rescuing. They need to find a home too, somewhere they can be safe from harm and learn to be themselves. Somewhere they can run, without judgement. Just one place of comfort. Can they have a home with you too? You’re the only other one that knows them.
Let’s reminiscence, sister, pretend we’re just like everyone else. Let’s talk about our family traditions; except when we get to the part about what dad did, instead of in stitches at his antics, like normal people, we’ll talk about the time mom needed stitches. Instead of cracking up at his pranks, we’ll talk about mom’s cracked ribs. WILL YOU STOP? You scold Professor Jameson for gnawing on Cookie. STOP IT STOP IT, the parrot can’t help herself.
Was mom very bold or just naïve when she gave our father his walking papers? Did she know what awaited her? Was it normal to watch our mom raise her fists in the air and scream at an impotent sky, then drop to her knees and pound the floor in fury hoping the physical pain replaced the emotional. God and the devil were house guests that never left; we fed them, but not ourselves. As the hands of justice hovered above us undecided whether or not to snatch us up in the rapture, depraved pulsating paisleys of flame nipped at our heels. Prosperity preachers convinced her their offering plates on our table was all that was needed to tip the scale. “Sow what you have in order to reap what you need. God will provide,” the TV preacher would bellow. “Plant the seed and it will grow. The Lord multiplies the reward for a faithful follower.” Delighted to be the conduit, his voice would culminate in a crescendo to encourage the hesitant. Mom gave. She gave until the cockroaches fled in search of spoils elsewhere. She blamed herself for our difficulties. Her faith was not strong enough. Maybe it was normal to prepare dinner from a few crackers and moldy cheese. Maybe that’s why mom liked wine so much, it kills the taste of cheese mold. It does.
Years have vanished between this perverted parade of nightmares that flair in bits of strobe light and dissipate upon waking. This missing time, is this the reason neither of us had children, or why you live blockaded in perpetual twilight, or for my former youthful powerlessness to thwart unwanted male attention? I tried once, remember? I asked if you were hungry, too. The next day you gifted me two cats, rescued from abuse. Like I needed a distraction. I was thinking too much. Please, talk to me. Hmmm? You say, as your eyes swing back from the menagerie of foster fails.
They tumble, swirl and curl. They need to be let out, they ask you to go out, they can’t escape on their own, they need your help, your consent. You open the door and a rotating vortex of madness races away. But you’re happier when they’re in, better than when they’re out. It’s safe to keep them in, so no one can see how many there are, or how unacceptable they are, even though they need to get out occasionally, but once they do, people will see, they’re too exposed, you’re too exposed. Better to bring them back in, where it’s more comfortable. You close the slight part in the curtains, ending the dance of the dust.
The parrot babbles her full repertoire in her piercing scratch; hello, goodbye, A B C D E F G, peanut mm mm, bad bird bad bird whatcha gonna do (to the tune of the TV show “Cops” theme song), hello, goodbye, A B C… All this intersperses with barking and hissing.
My drink is finished. The animals come running when I stand up. Wagging tails follow swarming teeth and claws. I pick my way carefully through them and the cats mounted on boxes like sentries manning a turret overlooking a fortress. You move the small table behind the door so I can leave easier. The parrot’s acrid voice rises above the rest, goodbye.
Unspoken doesn’t mean never happened, dear Sis.
From the writer
:: Account ::
“Unspoken” is true in its entirety, except for the part about the cockroaches, they actually stayed. I’ve written a series of poems and prose pieces in an attempt to understand, and heal, a painful childhood. In all of my work, my intent is to place the raw ache, humiliation, and rage on the paper while still honoring my mother for her bravery and unwavering maternal instincts, who never expected to be a single mother in the 1970s. It’s not easy to be honest after a lifetime of trying to suppress memories, and sometimes creative choices can help explain the inexplicable. This is why I chose a metaphor – the distraction of a house full of animals is used to avoid confronting the past. It is an apt choice to describe the relationship between my sister and I, who is older and suffered through those extra years with our abusive father. My creative liberties are inspired by Brenda Miller’s “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in AWP Writer’s Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2011. In her essay, Miller makes the argument that sometimes courage doesn’t always pay off in CNF, sometimes cowardice in the form of metaphor, syntax, imagery, or using a container, much like a hermit crab uses a shell for protection, produces better literature.
Faye Srala is a retired chemist living in Idaho pursuing a creative outlet with writing. She earned a BS in Chemistry from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, an MBA from the University of Utah, and is a current English major with the creative writing emphasis at Idaho State University. She waited until retirement to pursue an artistic outlet because her career was both rewarding and demanding, and because she didn’t trust her creativity enough make a switch. When not busy with classes, she bakes decadent desserts, drinks wine, and hikes off those calories in the extensive Idaho wilderness.