Recall was what happened to Nadia on her initial attempts to settle down for the night in the empty house. As the blood-warm waters of sleep began to close over her head, the wave had a tendency to recede sharply and she was torn away and jerked awake like an unfortunate fish impaled a hook. Sometimes, she brought back things from her failed attempts. One evening, she brought back a boy.
How did it happen? It happened like this: she was going under, and she saw a face looking up at her from the bottom, and an outstretched hand. She grasped the hand. She was snapped back. Twisting and turning in her sweat-damp sheets, she glanced in a corner and saw a small figure illuminated by the night-light. The figure was an impossibility, and yet no less real than her rickety night table, and even more real than the picture of her mother on said rickety night table.
Nadia had never known herself to hallucinate before. She supposed the boy would have presented a problem had she lived with someone else, but the house had emptied out many years before, and she was alone. She was, one could say, glad for the company. A good thing, because the hallucination was not in a hurry to leave.
The boy looked roughly eleven years old. In the daytime, he busied himself with humming softly in a corner, arranging Nadia’s discarded shoes into enemy fleets and waging world wars on the threadbare rug. The wind wrestled with the curtains and, tiring, sighed; her mother smiled from the brass frame. The boy played.
At night, he curled up at the far end of the king-size bed. Before he went to sleep, he made a habit of tracing the headboard inlaid with mother-of-pearl birds and fruits, once Nadia’s mother’s pride and joy. He was in awe of Nadia’s house, of the outmoded furniture, the wear-and-tear, the creaking of a loose shutter at night.
The boy rarely spoke. He did like to hear Nadia speak, all the time. She mostly trash-talked her relatives, lamenting that they had left her “all alone,” when she, in fact, had refused to move in with any of them on account of their loud children.
He was delightfully interested in her endless litany of complaints, so interested that she could never imagine asking a doctor prescribing her anti-psychotics to make him go away.
Who were they hurting, the two of them?
Sometimes, when he asked the odd question, Nadia could see dirt in his mouth. This disturbed her. He was too old to be eating dirt.
“You are too old to be eating dirt,” she told him. The boy shrugged.
Sometimes, he gurgled like a baby. Other times, he lay very still. She got used to his eccentricities soon enough, and together they sat side-by-side on the stone balcony, glass cups sweating from the tea she had brewed with great ceremony. She ruffled his hair and suspended her regular tales of family woe for tales of magic, her mother’s specialty. Nadia wasn’t nearly as good as her mother, but she managed.
Tea-time was when she thought about buying the boy books, paying for a tutor. She had never had children, she considered them tiresome and consuming, but this one was different: quiet and grateful and inclined toward wonderment. She had been alone for so long, she could not remember the last time she had a conversation with anyone, before the boy came. Her house was full of bright light than never warmed anything, not the ideal place to raise a child into an adult, but just as she did with the magic tales, she would manage.
She didn’t have much life left, but she had enough.
The boy gurgled and frowned, troubled by some memory. Then he leaned against her arm and, in a halting tone, asked for more tea, “if you can,” and she could. She could do anything for him.
Old shoes made bad boats. At the very least, he could diversify his fleet. It was her idea to grab the old newspapers from where they were piled, waiting for something, on her kitchen counter. The papers had stopped coming a long time ago, but she had no heart to throw them out. Their rustling was, if you listened closely, a furtive whisper from the world at large.
She made him boats from the paper, just as her mother taught her once: big boats, with black-ink headlines splashed on their sides. He pointed to one headline, and, frowning at the picture below it (the crease obscured the bottom half, but something in the upper half had disturbed him), asked her to read it for him. She did, and he cried out and vanished without a trace.
Nadia cried out too. She tore at the curtains, overturned the tea-tray, banged the shutters against the light that poured in and brought no warmth. The futility of her actions overwhelmed her and she sobbed at her mother’s picture, and said many things about wishing she had never been born, and the glass in the picture cracked, and her mother said, “please wake up.”
Nadia woke up in the hospital, tubes attached in intimate places. She felt like a beached octopus. Her eldest and (in her opinion) best nephew was holding her hand, asking her to wake up.
There were flowers and conversations that mentioned her “accident” and, smilingly, let the matter sink away. Nadia did not enjoy them. She preferred the hoary bluntness of the hairy-eared psychiatrist she met when she changed wards; he told her about how she had walked into the sea, was seen doing so by several reliable witnesses, and how her family could kid themselves all they want on the matter, it wouldn’t change a thing.
“You were torn from the hands of death by two fishermen who could have drowned themselves while saving you,” he said, accusingly and, she felt, a bit melodramatically. She didn’t try to argue.
“Your note said you were lonely. Lonely with such a big family?” She shrugged. “You are too old to be so foolish.” His voice was not entirely unkind, for a troll. She let him hold her hand; it was not the same, but it would, in present circumstances, have to do.
She had missed a lot while she slept. She had missed a variety of religious holidays, and a tsunami.
“What will you do?” The hairy-eared psychiatrist asked when she was discharged from the hospital. “Move in with your nephew, I suppose?” He was goading her. She wanted to tell him that just because he was so ugly, he didn’t have to take it out on her.
Instead, she said, “There are other matters I’m concerned about.” She remembered the place as it was told to her, and told him about it.
“That’s no place to be right now.”
She remembered tea-time and the flotilla of worn shoes.
Perhaps her money would go there in her stead, for now. Perhaps she would even let an airplane heave her old body due east, one of those days. She certainly had the means, having been a favored daughter a long time ago. She hoped her nephews wouldn’t hate her terribly. The best one would understand. The rest of them she would just have to not care about. That would be easy, because her time would now be taken up with caring about the others. Which others? The ones who had lived.
She herself did not have much life left. But it would be enough.