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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2017 - Vol. 14, Issue 3


written by

Rachael Z. Ikins 

"I'm sorry for your loss." I said.


"The way you talk about him, I had no idea he was gone."


My friend, Cindy, straightened a doll's dress on a display shelf in her shop in the basement of the house she and her husband had built.

I hate it myself when someone asks the inevitable question.,  


"Do you have children?" and if not, " How sad I am for you."


I'm sorry I do not. Now here is a woman who had a boy for 25 years, only to lose him.


"The phone rang one day." she said. "I don't recall the day of the week, but it was his neighbor in San Diego. He'd called to tell me of his concern that he'd seen Jeff's big  tabby cat, Elmo, roaming the neighborhood. Jeff treated that cat as his baby. He never would 've left him to roam outdoors.”


The neighbor guy went on to say he got no answer when he knocked. He called 911.


Jeff lay halfway between the bedroom and bathroom doors,face down like he was a baby again. His inhaler, when they finally noticed it, was standing as stiff as a shiny soldier, ready for action on the lip of the sink by the toilet. Cindy made him promise, when he'd moved across country, his rusty Toyota crammed with guitar, boxes, piles of clothes, and Elmo complaining in his crate, to keep his inhaler on him at all times.

She said to me,


"It was such a preventable death. It was so close to him, only a few feet from his body."


I said nothing, waited for her.


I hung the phone up. I can't remember whether my husband was at work or home. I started to vacuum. I grabbed my Kirby out of the hall closet where it stands draped in winter coats, including an old parka of Jeff's from when he was a little boy. The red, pilled mittens hung from the sleeves like hollow husks of hands. Hands that no longer fit. I jammed the plug into the first socket I saw in this house that still smelled new, but now suggested sterile emptiness stretching ahead into a flat, snow dune scape that blinds the eyes, and I vacuumed. Attacked the hall rug. Followed it into the living room and sucked the life out of that room, not caring if I knocked the sofa leg askew or spilled the magazines off the table. The one on top fell open to a story about Marie Osmond's son's death. At the time I’d felt so sorry for her, but lucky. I tell you, I dream about the inhaler.


He had his first attack when he was small during an argument I had with his father as we were engaging in the battle toward divorce. He was too young to understand words, only inflection. We stopped our fight in a last united effort to rush him to the emergency room.


"Asthma" the doctor said.


“After that, in our apartment just for two, my son and I built our life around asthma. I remember one winter walking across campus where it borders Lake Ontario. the cold was below zero and the wind cut blades into our clothing and skins wherever it could find  a patch.”


“You have no idea how hard it is to walk with a 3 year old across campus in winter in Oswego. How you want to crush him into your own coat to protect his fragile face. Dry winter air and furnace heat can bring on asthma attacks, too.”


“Do you understand why I was vacuuming? Someone found me, I forget if it was one of my sisters or my mom. Whoever it was thought I was insane. Someone had telephoned to say my son was found dead in San Diego sunlight, and I was housecleaning in the northeast. Who does that? A crazy woman.. Because, all I had to do was open the pantry door to rows of soup cans' bright line-up to see Jeff as a toddler squatting his funny toad-bottom in front of the sink cabinet, banging away on the cans with a wooden spoon, after ripping off all the labels before I knew it. This child could not read yet, but he understood how funny it would be if all the cans were mystery cans. I couldn't be angry.”


"I get it." I reassure her. The cleaning, I mean. The shriek of the vacuum louder than the one in your heart, the temporary respite before you sit quietly in your chair and it is late and you can't sleep and the darkness outside the windows stares in at you like you are some freak because now there is nothing between you and that awful knowledge. I get it."


Cindy is grateful. She looks down at her feet.


"I flew out there the next day. The whole way, I had to go alone because my husband's  department just could not let him go, I kept thinking that once the plane lands in the sun in California, the state of eternal youth and blue sky, he would be alive, the whole thing a grotesque mistake. It was such a preventable death. The inhaler, easy to carry at all times. He had extras to wear to class and school. And why didn't he go for it? Why didn't he call 911? He knew the warning signs well. He must 've had plenty of time. D'you think he wanted to die? He hated having asthma, but he was never suicidal. Do you think he meant to die?"


I know she thinks about the last question. It is easy to read the way her eyes flicker like headlights on a rainy night or the tails of deer running away, white even in the darkness. I do not answer her. Though honesty and truth are most necessary at these cross roads, I stay silent, waiting in the woods like the deer.


"After I got my baggage in the Las Vegas airport I heard on a newscast that there had been an earthquake outside of San Diego, on the Nevada side. I hailed a taxi. The driver promised me only that he would go as far as he was able. Sure enough we halted outside some small town.”


After a day or two, I inserted my key into the lock of Jeff's apartment. His clothes tumbled in a heap on the floor outside his bathroom, as if he 'd come in from work and class and meant to jump in the shower. I gathered the jeans to my face, almost too afraid to touch anything that had been near his skin. Before my brain knew it, my hands were smooching his denim against my nose, soaking up my tears. I inhaled the motor oil and sandwich sweet scent that was the most recent proof of my boy's existence. My heart battered against my neck, my ribs, like several small birds trapped in the garage when the door was opened, only now they don't fly back out.


Keeping the jeans like a bandage to my face I walked into the kitchen.There was that cute mat he had and two ceramic bowls with the skeletons of fish decorating their sides for Elmo. Beyond, the litter box waited for a small paw to dig in it. I wondered how Elmo got out, probably when the EMTs were milling around. Probably the cat scooted between their feet like a small shadow, like a small boy scared of this new thing.  I imagined him each day, his peeping meows next to Jeff's head, gently pawing his hair, trying to wake him up. He was hungry. I imagine his feline sigh and his scramble onto Jeff's back to nestle between the cold shoulder blades, hopeful that somehow this would turn out ok.


It makes me cry harder. Jeff and I are cat people. Cat hair made his asthma worse, but we were very good at cleaning daily and brushing Elmo. It seemed as if his need for cat-love was greater than his fear of asthma. I wondered what had happened to the cat, if he'd been hit by a car or taken in by a nice person or rescued and dropped off at the shelter.


I had planned to stay at the apartment, to clean it and take Jeff's things home with me where he would soon be buried next to his grandfather. My suitcase propped the door ajar.


I thought I was hallucinating when I felt a skinny dark shape silk itself between my ankles. I felt like I was in the spirit world. I said "Jeff" out loud. I could'n t help it.

I heard an answer "Meep, meow?" I touched his head. The cat had scabs between his ears.  He butted my chin hard with his head. His purr filled the silent space.


“Oh, poor boy, Elmo." I murmured as I hugged his thin body against me.


"I'm so sorry you lost your boy."


I buried my face in his fur. It felt like the silky softness of a baby's hair.

Rachael Ikins is a 2016 Pushcart nominee and award winning poet and artist. Her artwork has appeared in one-woman and group exhibits in Lipe Art Park, Tech Garden and Syracuse galleries as well as from Hamilton to Albany and the NYS Fair. She has published 6 chapbooks and two novels, all with cover art by Rachael. The novel, Totems is her first illustrated book. She has a B.S. from Syracuse University. Rachael is 2nd Vice President of the CNY Chapter of the National League of American Penwomen and credentialed in letters and arts and on the NLAPW publications committee. As well she belongs to Associated Artists of CNY and exhibits with the group in Manlius Library and Cooperstown, the Schweinfurth and Rome Art Associations. She lives in Baldwinsville NY with her dogs and cat, her salt water fish tank filled with magical creatures that glow in the dark and many plants and books.

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