The sharp smell of bleach fills Lise’s room at The Pines Care Center, though there are undertones of hair in need of washing, and the cafeteria down the hall. The cooking aromas here are nothing like the chicken broth and browning onion smell of Lise’s kitchen, but even those would be hard for Sophie to bear right now. She would like to open a window for some fresh air, but she doesn’t want to let go of Lise’s hand, to disturb her.

AFTER ALL

In her last days, when they no longer try to lure her from her narrow bed, she hears singing, lullabies like those her mother sang to her in Ladino or Hebrew, the melodies soft and bright.

“Don’t you hear it?” she asks the night nurse, a tall, dark man with the gentlest hands, and improbably, a gold hoop in one ear. A gentle pirate! Or perhaps he’s in costume for Purim? Her favorite holiday. But the night nurse—his name escapes her—has taken her temperature and blood pressure and departed, so she cannot ask him. In the morning, she will locate her butterfly costume, the wings she made from wire and muslin and a special, iridescent paint, the cap with its curled antennae. It was her best Purim outfit. She will offer it to her granddaughter Sophie, who should get out more. She’s always sitting around here. “Go on,” Lise will tell her, handing over the shimmering costume. “Dance.”

When her daughter comes the singing is louder, the words more clear, as if a whole choir sings, so she is surprised, then annoyed when Genny claims not to hear any singing at all.

“Listen,” Lise says. “They are so lovely.”

“Is there ringing in your ears? Should I get the doctor?”

“Never mind.” Lise loves this girl, but they will never see eye to eye. She is too tired to argue with her. She shuts her eyes, hums along with the music.

*
*

Later when she awakes to supper, Genny is gone, but her real mother, Esther, is here. Lise’s heart beats too fast as it always does near Esther, impatient, quick moving, Esther. It’s been a long time since Lise has seen her, and still the nervousness. Why after all this time? Should she say something, apologize for taking what wasn’t hers? But the child needed her, and Lise went to her, kept her from harm. What else could she have done? What more? True, she needed the child, wanted her. Isn’t that, perhaps, a happy consequence of so much sadness?

She thinks to ask Esther, and clears her throat, but the woman before her isn’t Esther, after all. It’s Sophie, Genny’s daughter, who looks like Esther, with her thin, freckled nose and pale eyes, but is in fact, soft and kind. Sophie bends to kiss her on both cheeks. Relief floods Lise’s veins. “I hear the most lovely singing,” she says.

“What kind?” Sophie asks.

Ecoute,” Lise says. This one is about a boat on the blue gray sea.”

Sophie takes her hand. “Nice,” she says.

“You look like her, but your temperament is more like me,” Lise says.

“Like who?” Sophie says.

Lise would like to answer, to tell her more, but her thoughts are like bread thrown to ducks, crumbling, soggy; they sink. She squeezes Sophie’s hand to tell her everything she can’t say. In her hand, the girl’s is slim and cool.

*

The sharp smell of bleach fills Lise’s room at The Pines Care Center, though there are undertones of hair in need of washing, and the cafeteria down the hall. The cooking aromas here are nothing like the chicken broth and browning onion smell of Lise’s kitchen, but even those would be hard for Sophie to bear right now. She would like to open a window for some fresh air, but she doesn’t want to let go of Lise’s hand, to disturb her.

The doctor has told them that Lise’s heart is slowing. Any day now, he says, but Lise seems unchanged from the previous day. Sophie thinks of Lise’s stories of the war, of all the abrupt departures, the hasty gathering of possessions and the abandoning of others and of plans newly laid, seeds sown: In the summer, we would have carrots and beans. Now, Lise won’t be rushed, won’t cooperate with Dr. Shearer’s timetable or itinerary.
She’s taking her sweet time.

Lise murmurs something, too faint for Sophie to make out. In sleep, her face is without guile, childlike despite the deep creases and lines of her skin. Her hair, cut short like a boy’s, is white, but threaded through with hints of its previous auburn.

Sitting here, Lise asleep, gives Sophie time to think. She does the math again, counts back. Finn left a month ago, back to Denmark where he will write up the research he conducted here in the University’s agronomy fields and lab. She is, according to her calculations, about eight weeks pregnant. From their time together, Sophie has a series of photos taken at a booth at the Boone County Fair. In one, she and Finn eat cotton candy. In the next shot, they stick out their bright red tongues. The next captures them with open mouths, laughing. In the last, they kiss. They have no plans together beyond this fair, these sugared moments.

There is a knock on the door, and then without a pause, Dr. Shearer appears. “How is she this evening?” he asks.

“The same, I think,” Sophie says.

Lise opens her eyes and then shuts them immediately when she sees it’s the doctor. It’s hard not to read into this Lise’s disregard for doctors. She has always preferred home remedies—charcoal tablets and rice water for stomach upset, a tincture of Valerian for nerves, a cool cloth and a dark room for headaches. And if anyone suggests these methods aren’t legitimate, she only laughs and mentions her age: 101. For Sophie’s nausea, she would recommend chamomile tea.

“Her body temperature is very low.” Dr. Shearer says, and then quietly: “It won’t be long now.”

Sophie understands that he might be correct, but it’s impossible to absorb. Lise dying? He doesn’t know whom he’s talking about. Last year, when Sophie was away on a buying trip for her shop, Genny called to say she should come home right away; Lise was dying. When Sophie got to the Pines, there was Lise, sitting up in the dining hall eating ice cream with a little wooden spoon. It was vanilla and Lise had pointed out that in general she preferred chocolate.

“She’s done this before,” Sophie says.

“Still,” he says, “you will want to notify your family.” And then looking down at Lise’s paperwork on his clipboard, “Your rabbi.”

How nice it would be to have a guide through this, someone wise and calm, to lead the way, and tell them how to behave, what to expect. What they need is a tour guide, someone who will slowly and carefully translate, deliver dates and names, all manner of important facts.

“We’re all here,” Sophie tells him. “There’s no one else.” But she decides then that she will have the child. Lise, she believes, would approve. Her time with Finn had been short, but happy. Their lives are in different places. Hers here and his in Copenhagen. When she spoke of Finn to Genny or Lise, she called him “my visiting scholar.”

*

Lise wakes thinking she must post a letter home. She will feel settled only after the letter is in the blue gullet of the mailbox. Instead of mailbox she thinks pelican. She knows this is the wrong word but being wrong isn’t so very troubling. Perhaps where she is going (this is the first that she understands that she is again embarking on a journey) one can be wrong with impunity. Correct or incorrect, it hardly matters.

Despite what Genny thinks, the singing continues, fainter as if the singers are growing weary. She wishes Genny would try to hear them. But Genny is strong willed, like her mother. She is thinking of Esther, not herself, but she laughs then, because she is Genny’s mother, after all.

“What is it, Mother?” Genny asks.

Lise reaches for her hand. “Eh, voila,” she says.

*

Funny, she doesn’t recall stepping onto the train. There has been no particular fuss about tickets or identity papers. She doesn’t have any luggage beside her, no parcels. Maybe the bags are in the rack above or stowed in a compartment at the end of this car. Or perhaps she is traveling light as she has certainly done before. The train heaves into motion then, and Lise settles back in her seat. The motion makes her drowsy, like being rocked in a cradle. She thinks of Genny—or was it Sophie?—as a baby, fussing and tired, but fighting sleep, unwilling to miss a thing. Her eyes would droop closed and then snap open, outraged that she’d been fooled into calm.

The train passes clusters of houses with tile roofs, then pastures and orchards. It winds through woods where Lise spots deer, their big eyes unblinking. How inviting the forest is, dappled with sunlight, ferns swaying by the stream. Velvet moss covers the stones. Her heart feels funny for a moment, fluttery, but then it stills. The train leaves the woods and moves through open ground. For a short while there is nothing, and then the train cuts through lush fields of bright green. With pleasure, Lise recalls its name: chartreuse.

From the porch of an old farmhouse, a little boy with a red wagon loaded with firewood waves to her, his wave a benediction and a promise—of what, she doesn’t know. She would like to brush back his bangs. She has secrets to whisper into the pink shell of his ear. At the very least she would like to wave back to him, but the train has sped up and passed him and his fields, the big chapped farmhouse.

The boy is gone. Gone, like so much else. Oh, well, she thinks, another time. She sinks back into her seat, closes her eyes. If she is very still, she can just make out the singing. The voices lull her. How easy it is, after all, this leaving. After all.

RACHEL HALL is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Heirlooms, (BkMk Press) which was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra book prize. Hall’s recent work appears in Bellingham Review, Guernica Daily, Midwestern Gothic, and Lilith and LitHub. She teaches creative writing and literature at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds two Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence—one in teaching and one for her creative work. Follow her @Rach_H_writer and at rachelhall.org

element (266)

Rachel Hall

The sharp smell of bleach fills Lise’s room at The Pines Care Center, though there are undertones of hair in need of washing, and the cafeteria down the hall. The cooking aromas here are nothing like the chicken broth and browning onion smell of Lise’s kitchen, but even those would be hard for Sophie to bear right now. She would like to open a window for some fresh air, but she doesn’t want to let go of Lise’s hand, to disturb her.

AFTER ALL

In her last days, when they no longer try to lure her from her narrow bed, she hears singing, lullabies like those her mother sang to her in Ladino or Hebrew, the melodies soft and bright.

“Don’t you hear it?” she asks the night nurse, a tall, dark man with the gentlest hands, and improbably, a gold hoop in one ear. A gentle pirate! Or perhaps he’s in costume for Purim? Her favorite holiday. But the night nurse—his name escapes her—has taken her temperature and blood pressure and departed, so she cannot ask him. In the morning, she will locate her butterfly costume, the wings she made from wire and muslin and a special, iridescent paint, the cap with its curled antennae. It was her best Purim outfit. She will offer it to her granddaughter Sophie, who should get out more. She’s always sitting around here. “Go on,” Lise will tell her, handing over the shimmering costume. “Dance.”

When her daughter comes the singing is louder, the words more clear, as if a whole choir sings, so she is surprised, then annoyed when Genny claims not to hear any singing at all.

“Listen,” Lise says. “They are so lovely.”

“Is there ringing in your ears? Should I get the doctor?”

“Never mind.” Lise loves this girl, but they will never see eye to eye. She is too tired to argue with her. She shuts her eyes, hums along with the music.

*
*

Later when she awakes to supper, Genny is gone, but her real mother, Esther, is here. Lise’s heart beats too fast as it always does near Esther, impatient, quick moving, Esther. It’s been a long time since Lise has seen her, and still the nervousness. Why after all this time? Should she say something, apologize for taking what wasn’t hers? But the child needed her, and Lise went to her, kept her from harm. What else could she have done? What more? True, she needed the child, wanted her. Isn’t that, perhaps, a happy consequence of so much sadness?

She thinks to ask Esther, and clears her throat, but the woman before her isn’t Esther, after all. It’s Sophie, Genny’s daughter, who looks like Esther, with her thin, freckled nose and pale eyes, but is in fact, soft and kind. Sophie bends to kiss her on both cheeks. Relief floods Lise’s veins. “I hear the most lovely singing,” she says.

“What kind?” Sophie asks.

Ecoute,” Lise says. This one is about a boat on the blue gray sea.”

Sophie takes her hand. “Nice,” she says.

“You look like her, but your temperament is more like me,” Lise says.

“Like who?” Sophie says.

Lise would like to answer, to tell her more, but her thoughts are like bread thrown to ducks, crumbling, soggy; they sink. She squeezes Sophie’s hand to tell her everything she can’t say. In her hand, the girl’s is slim and cool.

*

The sharp smell of bleach fills Lise’s room at The Pines Care Center, though there are undertones of hair in need of washing, and the cafeteria down the hall. The cooking aromas here are nothing like the chicken broth and browning onion smell of Lise’s kitchen, but even those would be hard for Sophie to bear right now. She would like to open a window for some fresh air, but she doesn’t want to let go of Lise’s hand, to disturb her.

The doctor has told them that Lise’s heart is slowing. Any day now, he says, but Lise seems unchanged from the previous day. Sophie thinks of Lise’s stories of the war, of all the abrupt departures, the hasty gathering of possessions and the abandoning of others and of plans newly laid, seeds sown: In the summer, we would have carrots and beans. Now, Lise won’t be rushed, won’t cooperate with Dr. Shearer’s timetable or itinerary.
She’s taking her sweet time.

Lise murmurs something, too faint for Sophie to make out. In sleep, her face is without guile, childlike despite the deep creases and lines of her skin. Her hair, cut short like a boy’s, is white, but threaded through with hints of its previous auburn.

Sitting here, Lise asleep, gives Sophie time to think. She does the math again, counts back. Finn left a month ago, back to Denmark where he will write up the research he conducted here in the University’s agronomy fields and lab. She is, according to her calculations, about eight weeks pregnant. From their time together, Sophie has a series of photos taken at a booth at the Boone County Fair. In one, she and Finn eat cotton candy. In the next shot, they stick out their bright red tongues. The next captures them with open mouths, laughing. In the last, they kiss. They have no plans together beyond this fair, these sugared moments.

There is a knock on the door, and then without a pause, Dr. Shearer appears. “How is she this evening?” he asks.

“The same, I think,” Sophie says.

Lise opens her eyes and then shuts them immediately when she sees it’s the doctor. It’s hard not to read into this Lise’s disregard for doctors. She has always preferred home remedies—charcoal tablets and rice water for stomach upset, a tincture of Valerian for nerves, a cool cloth and a dark room for headaches. And if anyone suggests these methods aren’t legitimate, she only laughs and mentions her age: 101. For Sophie’s nausea, she would recommend chamomile tea.

“Her body temperature is very low.” Dr. Shearer says, and then quietly: “It won’t be long now.”

Sophie understands that he might be correct, but it’s impossible to absorb. Lise dying? He doesn’t know whom he’s talking about. Last year, when Sophie was away on a buying trip for her shop, Genny called to say she should come home right away; Lise was dying. When Sophie got to the Pines, there was Lise, sitting up in the dining hall eating ice cream with a little wooden spoon. It was vanilla and Lise had pointed out that in general she preferred chocolate.

“She’s done this before,” Sophie says.

“Still,” he says, “you will want to notify your family.” And then looking down at Lise’s paperwork on his clipboard, “Your rabbi.”

How nice it would be to have a guide through this, someone wise and calm, to lead the way, and tell them how to behave, what to expect. What they need is a tour guide, someone who will slowly and carefully translate, deliver dates and names, all manner of important facts.

“We’re all here,” Sophie tells him. “There’s no one else.” But she decides then that she will have the child. Lise, she believes, would approve. Her time with Finn had been short, but happy. Their lives are in different places. Hers here and his in Copenhagen. When she spoke of Finn to Genny or Lise, she called him “my visiting scholar.”

*

Lise wakes thinking she must post a letter home. She will feel settled only after the letter is in the blue gullet of the mailbox. Instead of mailbox she thinks pelican. She knows this is the wrong word but being wrong isn’t so very troubling. Perhaps where she is going (this is the first that she understands that she is again embarking on a journey) one can be wrong with impunity. Correct or incorrect, it hardly matters.

Despite what Genny thinks, the singing continues, fainter as if the singers are growing weary. She wishes Genny would try to hear them. But Genny is strong willed, like her mother. She is thinking of Esther, not herself, but she laughs then, because she is Genny’s mother, after all.

“What is it, Mother?” Genny asks.

Lise reaches for her hand. “Eh, voila,” she says.

*

Funny, she doesn’t recall stepping onto the train. There has been no particular fuss about tickets or identity papers. She doesn’t have any luggage beside her, no parcels. Maybe the bags are in the rack above or stowed in a compartment at the end of this car. Or perhaps she is traveling light as she has certainly done before. The train heaves into motion then, and Lise settles back in her seat. The motion makes her drowsy, like being rocked in a cradle. She thinks of Genny—or was it Sophie?—as a baby, fussing and tired, but fighting sleep, unwilling to miss a thing. Her eyes would droop closed and then snap open, outraged that she’d been fooled into calm.

The train passes clusters of houses with tile roofs, then pastures and orchards. It winds through woods where Lise spots deer, their big eyes unblinking. How inviting the forest is, dappled with sunlight, ferns swaying by the stream. Velvet moss covers the stones. Her heart feels funny for a moment, fluttery, but then it stills. The train leaves the woods and moves through open ground. For a short while there is nothing, and then the train cuts through lush fields of bright green. With pleasure, Lise recalls its name: chartreuse.

From the porch of an old farmhouse, a little boy with a red wagon loaded with firewood waves to her, his wave a benediction and a promise—of what, she doesn’t know. She would like to brush back his bangs. She has secrets to whisper into the pink shell of his ear. At the very least she would like to wave back to him, but the train has sped up and passed him and his fields, the big chapped farmhouse.

The boy is gone. Gone, like so much else. Oh, well, she thinks, another time. She sinks back into her seat, closes her eyes. If she is very still, she can just make out the singing. The voices lull her. How easy it is, after all, this leaving. After all.

RACHEL HALL is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Heirlooms, (BkMk Press) which was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra book prize. Hall’s recent work appears in Bellingham Review, Guernica Daily, Midwestern Gothic, and Lilith and LitHub. She teaches creative writing and literature at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds two Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence—one in teaching and one for her creative work. Follow her @Rach_H_writer and at rachelhall.org