In the one hour of old video, her bloated face and heart consider the person she was, and the person she was about to become. Thirty-nine weeks pregnant, overblown, primed to explode. Watching this more than ten years later, the file stalls on the screen of the laptop. She is peering back at a trace of her identity. There she was: ‘mother-to-be.’ And there she goes, as she was: unencumbered, unfettered and free.
The laptop seems to groan and shudder, then it grinds to a freeze. Her pregnant face, frozen mid-word, mouth open in hopeful fear. About to burn up on entry to the atmosphere.
* * *
When the winter comes, the house is cold and dark. Rare shafts of light stray onto the floorboards: golden slices of sun. Dust floating, swirling, and landing again.
She sweeps while she speaks. She sweeps while she weeps. She arranges piles of dust and detritus, pushes them close, moulds them into a mound. Phone at her neck, voice shaking, crying in frustration, ‘You don’t understand! I don’t exist!’ She is making a claim for existence. I sweep, therefore I am.
The piles are ugly markers of her dead days. Her children are at school, her work swiped away from her. Bits of bread, skin, fluff. Dark matter. Grey matter. Grey matter? Perhaps it is her brain she is binning. She hasn’t read a book in years.
Sweep sweep, wipe wipe. Slide away behind the curtain and scream. Weep quietly, survey the piles, slide them into the red plastic pan, neatly now, get all the traces left behind. It’s impossible. The dust and dirt falls through the floorboard cracks, down to where the rats play and the mice dance. The glossy floorboards put up a shiny pretence, but the cracks between them tell the tale.
* * *
Dust. What is it made of? She often told herself it was the remnants of a person, of a life; piles of dead skin. But much of it is just dirt. Dirt from outside. Grit, rubbish, bits of plant, and even traces from outer space, of meteorite particles. She has read about meteors. They form fireballs, or shooting stars. The brightest are ‘bolides’ — meteorites large enough to smash out a crater.
Whether the dust is dead bits of humans or of space, the fact is that within these walls, the piles of dust define her. Somewhat. For a while. She weeps at the cruel fate of becoming marooned.
* * *
The house is a built-in bunker, a cold brick box. No outlook, no light. The back faces north, but none of the windows do. Some days, she chases the slant of light across the dusty floorboards. She watches the floating moats, the angled slice of sun which passes through, just briefly, on its east–west path.
At least the bathroom has a window. The toilet smells a bit dank, the bathmat is a bit damp, the rotten window is open just enough for the air to come in. From there, she can see the western sky: clouds and birds passing, the high leaves of the plane trees swaying. A tree, born of a random seed between the bricks, brushes against the window. Its leaves and seed pods spread into the yard’s back corner. At least there is a tree. At least the seed sprouted. At least it exists.
The metal venetian slats hold the dust of the last ten years. When she tries to raise them to let in more light, the railing and blinds fall from their mooring, clattering into the bath.
* * *
The surfaces are clean, shiny shiny. Wipe down the fronts of the cupboards. Quietly now. It makes no noise. No-one sees or hears her work. Smear the dust, rinse it out. Return to wipe the crumbs, remove the grease from the bench, address the windowsill: grime caked under the aluminium-framed windows.
On other days, sweep the dusty detritus into piles; collect, dispose. She takes a photo, sometimes, to prove that she exists. To show that she does work; to allow a calculation of her worth.
When the man does housework, it’s noisy. It declares its worth. Clatter, scrape, smash, roar, crash. Whiiiiirrrrrr, clunk! Man’s body moves rough and rushed through the house, out the back to the bricked-in garden, out the front to the cold, cramped verandah. Rush, rush. He moves like a cold front through the north–south passage of the house.
Meanwhile, she works quietly, quiet as a mouse. Wipe wipe, sweep sweep, no-one sees her no-one hears her no-one knows she is there, inside. Scrub the shower, clean the grout, wipe the basin.
Behind the curtains, in her carved-out study, the books pile up around her. She starts to read again. She begins to steal some words, making marks on paper and on screen. Scratch scratch, tap tap. The curtain is transparent, no shield from the noise, the clatter, the swirling family scene. A mouse pops out, looks around and runs away, burying itself among the crocheted rugs, making a nest in the recycled paper. Her small scratching is no match for man’s crashing and bashing, his taking out of wet washing and bringing in of dry, the screeching unfolding of the ironing board, his hot iron in front of the television. Hiss!
* * *
One day he tells her she wouldn’t know what it’s like to run around after kids for ten hours. As the dust shifts, she sees a swirling calendar of days, light years of caring for kids, packing rice crackers for the park, heating microwaved milk, making stewed apples, mashing sweet potato. ‘Try ten years,’ she says.
And so she sits, and taps with fury, carving out words. She IS there, inside. Damn it, these dust piles hold bits of shooting stars! She can be a fireball. She can be a bolide, big enough to form a crater. Making her mark; exploding in the atmosphere. From the dark matter, time to shine. Her open mouth breathes hope into fear.
First published in Visible Ink’s Trace edition, 2018
© Anna Sublet, 2019