As his fingers traced the word, he felt as if a figure was being etched on the smooth, silver, forgetful stone of his mind.
George MacHallister had found it – after months and countless perusals of his beloved dictionary. He breathed a sigh of relief as the image of his daughter Ava was lured from the dark recesses of his mind.
Fleeting – adj. definition: passing swiftly – Ah! He said the word aloud and a chill traced a haphazard path from his toes to the crown of his head.
Ava was fleeting, fleeting, fleeting. She was the whisper in his life – his secret peace – his shadow child. She was thin and small, oddly unlike her parents and siblings, and she existed in the parameters of her family’s world, an expert in the art of shifting and creeping and emerging from the shadows. She was George’s favorite in the way she welcomed him home from work – unlike her loud, shouting siblings, she would wait until he had sat down and relaxed before going to him. Thin, long, beautiful traveler hands would steal around his neck, and she would sing her welcome song to him, and George would bless, bless her soul for this quiet comfort. Then she would hasten away to an unknown haven, and would appear at dinner after some long and vexing search for her – tapering fingers cradling aged books; her dark, earnest eyes meeting George’s only sometimes and glancing away, cryptic. She passed swiftly – he had just glanced again at the definition in the dictionary and marveled at how wonderfully the word fit her – in and out of the house, in and out of the activity of her siblings, and now, years later, in and out of his memories.
George MacHallister reached to his bedside table and picked up a yellowed index card. Grasping his pencil tightly, he wrote Ava MacHallister’s name and, below it, the word “fleeting”. He kissed the card gratefully, and placed it beside him back on the table.
Beside it were three others, his dearest possessions, his only weapons to combat the darkness of his mind – and George stretched a veined, trembling hand and selected the one nearest to him, fingering its edges gratefully, and straining, he read:
Onomatopoeia. Noun, definition: the formation of words whose sound is imitative of the sound of the noise or action designated, such as hiss, buzz, and bang.
Clarity – George’s hand trembled triumphantly, and he shut his eyes – wonderful, precious clarity. A lantern raised jubilantly in the sludgy, murky swamp that was George’s mind. Water slipping swiftly – bless it, bless it – through the molasses that oozed and slid about his body. He felt the molasses, every day – slow and sludgy – moving in and out his pores – he felt it in his neurons, those slow, insolent messengers; in the atoms that built his body, every bone, every movement encapsulated in a sticky mire of murk and bewilderment. But now, if just for a moment, everything was clear.
Onomatopoeia – it inspired a string of memories, beginning with lessons in elementary school and perusals in textbooks, that unraveled, unraveled into an image of George’s brother, Brian.
Brian was sound, all sound – a tangible onomatopoeia from the moment of his birth, his loud, shrill cries resounding from his mother’s quiet bedroom. Later, can-kicking down the street, his heavy boom boom of footsteps shaking the house, his boisterous HaHaHa laughter waking his neighbors – Brian became a brilliant composer, every action and movement a designated note, building and building and reaching its climax so that Brian’s life was a symphony. Brian was a mason, a sculptor of sound, a hot air balloon of onomatopoeia bursting only at inopportune moments.
His life ended in onomatopoeia too – with a kaboom! explosion in a battlefield, and the loud weeping of his mother. Only George remained silent at the funeral – faithful worshipper of his brother – because he knew that sound was his brother’s gift and instrument, and no one else’s.
George fingered the edges of the index card and felt the confident grip of his brother’s hearty handshake, saw the colors and textures of the sounds that once poured incessantly from his brother’s mouth. He shook his head – these memories were beautiful, and placing the card with the others, he settled back onto his pillow.
Still electrified by this temporal clarity, George pressed the button beside his bed. Within a few moments, a nurse bustled in, and George was struck with a sudden appreciation of his age. The nurse was youth – youth embodied – and so close, so close to his hesitant, wrinkled hands and murky thoughts. “Here,” he said, reaching for his index cards and extending his hands to the nurse. “Take these, and put them somewhere safe please. Here – Ah, the word is on the tip of my tongue – well, anyhow, somewhere safe. Please. They’re important.”
The nurse smiled over him – not at him, but over him, over him. She spoke as she clutched the cards to her bosom. “Of course, Mr. MacHallister, I’ll be sure to keep them safe. They’re important, are they?”
George was restless, the rushing water in his veins impelling him to rise from his bed and do a thousand, million things and he resented this stranger’s intrusion into this most intimate of matters. “Important – of course.” The intangible is tangible, the unfixed is fixed – all in these cards, he thought, and he was desperate for her, for anyone, to save him.
The nurse smiled – over him of course – as if she understood, which she did not.
And some terrible man switched the channel, a film of snow and static and fuzziness slipping over the television screen. Too-thick honey humming through his veins, coating his eardrums. The sound of his lucidity escaping him. It was imperative that they were safe, these cards, and he had to impress it upon her – the fool, the folly-girl, she would not understand and at once George was desperate, desperate, desperate.
“Take the cards for me. Please. Please. Maybe put them in a box – bring them back for me. I don’t know your name, Miss, but listen to me. They are all I have, everyone I have left.”
The nurse was folding back his bedding – dumpy, cumbersome hands plumping pillows so that George was very uncomfortable. Her youth was no longer beautiful – she was stupid, and she did not, could not understand George and he resented the rim of dirt beneath her nails and the sunburn of her skin.
“Okay, Mr. MacHallister. Don’t upset yourself, dear. I’ll take care of it right now.”
George gave a cursory glance at the girl as she hurried out of the room, and then his eyes swept across white walls, white dressers, his own white bed – a white expanse of sterile, chilling emptiness. Red? Where were the red brick walls of his childhood home, papered with his most beautiful memories? And the yellow, yellow room he shared with his phosphorous wife? He felt the silence of this room, the terrible silence creepy crawling across his skin, and he was yearning and longing for the onomatopoeia of his brother and the sweet hush of his daughter that was so different from the impenetrable, cold shield that was the silence of his white room.
Sludge. Oh! It hit him all at once – cold and hot all at once. Sludgy, slippery, slimy – he was immersed in it, submerged in it, drowning in it. Choking – he fought against it, thinking of the words on the index cards he had foolishly just given to the nurse – that gross animal monster of misunderstanding and mollification, the woman who held in her ugly hands his most precious possession – and he repeated the words like a mantra: fleeting, onomatopoeia, reverberation, phosphorous…
No use. The words were no use – sometimes they were, but most of the time they were not. Empty, emptiness, bees leaving, zipping from his body. George was a deep, bee-abandoned honey comb, and the honey was all wrong, because the bees had gone. Too thick now, it dripped in heavy splats from his ears and nose and every crevice of his body. Thump, thump, thump. Perpetual indifference settling in his bones.
White everywhere about him and then lots of colors – he was rolling about in a circus tent. He was four, and he was so very happy because his grandmother had bought him roasted peanuts. And then the peanut was a scotch, and he was with his father – his father beside him now, smelling of walked-in leather and grocery-money cigars. And the scotch was a flower for the woman he loved, and the flower was a child, and the child was a kite, and the kite was the alien in Saturday morning cartoons.
And George made the world, and thought it was good. And he thought to call himself Ishmael.
And then nothing. Gray, or grey. Or blue, or stone or silver. Women passing in and out- he was strangled as they plumped his pillows and passed pills into his mouth, wrenching his molasses mouth open and drowning him in a deluge of paper-cup water, convoluting his already convoluted body.
That woman with the white cap speaking at him and at him. And glazy people – everything glazed over with a film of glass, and George wondered if he was in a snow globe. The one of Central Park with the paper snowflakes and overly cheerful people – and he shook himself, but there was no snow, so somewhere in his hum-drum mind he came to the realization that no, he was not trapped in a snow globe, and yes, he needed to use the bathroom.
Years and months and weeks and days and hours passed. Nothing and no one. The sun streamed in offensively and George – who was, actually, only digging a hole in the sand to reach China or maybe Timbuktu – tossed a glass of water at the stranger who was opening his shades (who was she, by the by? Or by the way, he should say, because he hadn’t heard anyone use that term since the summer he was four).
Manic madness, foolishness. And immobility – George surrendered to immobility as the maple syrup that was supposed to be on his pancakes was suddenly in his toes and fingers.
George lifted his thousand pound fingers, and he was a slow pianist, playing on his black and white keyboard bed the opening notes to Fur Elise. Beads of nervous sweat making paths down his back, because all his family and friends were watching him. Damn! Misnote, Misplayed, Mistake, and George dropped his lead fingers and had his assistant put away the piano.
Whispers stole into the room, and George glanced at the strangers who were peering at him anxiously. That woman with the cap, and another one – a woman he had not seen before.
George raised his heavy, heavy head off his pillow to listen.
“He gave me these old cards not too long ago – before this recent spell. He was adamant that I keep them safe,” the woman with the white cap and the peculiar smell was saying to the other woman.
“Oh?” said the other woman, who was not very young, but neither was she very old. She reached towards the woman in the white cap, and George was pleased to see that her fingers were long and nice, and her nails were clean.
Ms. Beautiful Hands shuffled through the cards, and her eyes flashed open widely and she pressed her beautiful hand to her sallow cheek and gave a tiny cry that stirred and cleared a bit of the oozing syrup from George’s blood.
George wiggled his now slightly-lighter fingers appreciatively.
Ms. Beautiful hands, and her very many rings, looked up towards the white-cap girl – who was very much taller than her and larger in every respect – and then at George. “Can I speak to him?”
The white-cap woman hastened to George, and if he hadn’t had so much God-damned syrup in his blood he would have moved away. “Mr. MacHallister, you have a visitor,” she spoke very loudly. “Mrs. Lorane is here to see you – she came all the way from New York to visit.”
George did not respond, watching the perspiration that dripped, dripped, dripped from the spot below her white cap.
And at once Ms. Beautiful Hands was in her place, and she had her lovely hands wrapped up in his lead fingers. “Oh, Papa!” she sighed, and she sniffled and dropped desperate, fast kisses all about his furrowed brow. “Oh, Papa!” she sighed again, and George looked about impatiently for this woman’s father – for, although he thought the woman seemed nice enough and had pretty hands, he had to go to his office to pay his bills.
“Papa, it’s me – Oh, I miss you. It’s Ava – Your daughter.” Ms. Beautiful Hands was sniffling very loudly, and she was kneeling beside his bed and speaking at him.
The poor thing, George thought. Doesn’t know where or who her father is. He remembered, far back in the swamp of his mind, that he had a little girl, but this woman was too old and too strange to be his baby.
Water dripped onto his hand, and George realized the woman was weeping and crying, and he pitied her tremendously.
That horrendous, white-capped woman was making sounds in the corner. “Oh, Mrs. Lorane, try to understand – I tried to explain”- but the sounds of the sniffling and the crying overcame her, and the white-capped lady bustled to the crying woman’s side and, ripping the cards out of her grasp, placed them before George.
“These are your cards, Mr. MacHallister. They are very important to you. Why don’t you read one?” And the nurse shushed the strange Ms. Beautiful Hands, who was clinging to George’s sleeve.
The first card was face up.
Fleeting – adj. definition: passing swiftly – Ava MacHallister.
Bees buzzed into the honey combs and the fog streamed down the windows of George’s mind. Cold spring water and crisp lemonade and fresh strawberries –
And a very little girl walked in.
Both women stood up. “Grandpa isn’t feeling well,” said Ms. Beautiful Hands hurriedly, “you can’t be here Sophia.”
A thrill ran through George’s body – Oh! The little girl’s eyes met his – grave and somber and framed by dark, gypsy lashes – and everything in George cried out. “Ava?”
Ms. Beautiful Hands’ eyes flashed towards George, and she rushed back to his side. “Papa?”
He pushed her lovely hands away roughly. “Ava?”
She was so far from him, and that horrendous woman with the cap of dirty snow was nudging her out the door. Fleeting, oh, fleeting – passing out the door. Ava!
“Ava!” he cried out, and he thought of deft little hands holding well-loved books and welcome songs and quiet comfort and everything made perfect sense.
And then Ms. Beautiful Hands was pushing Ava towards him, and then his child was in his lap and her thin, orphan arms wrapped about his neck and George was so very very happy. Clarity – clarity so bright that everything was phosphorous and elastic, thrumming and strumming with love and warmth and family and Ava.
Ava fidgeted in his arms, and turned to look at Ms. Beautiful Hands, who was standing in the corner of the room and sniffling wretchedly into her hands. “Mama, can I go play now?”
George was bewildered – Mama? But he held her all the more tightly, until she slipped out his grasp. “No, Ava, please” he felt himself saying, and he could not understand his own desperation. “Your welcome song? Oh, sing your welcome song honey.”
Ava shrank from him, and went to Ms. Beautiful Hands, tugging at her skirt.
“Oh, please, Ava. You’ve never missed a day – it’s been a hard day at work, and I’ve missed you – ”
And then Ms. Beautiful Hands was beside him, her arms wrapped about his neck. “Oh, Papa,” she said brokenly, “You remember our song?”
She began to sing then, but George could not hear her, for he was watching Ava pass swiftly from his room like a shadow. Fleeting.