Home > The Light of the Fireflies(3)

The Light of the Fireflies(3)
Paul Pen

“Do you think they’ll do?” he asked.

My grandmother snatched them from his hands and put one in the largest pot. For a few seconds Dad just stood there, his head down and his hands in the air as if he was still holding some invisible towels.

“Come on, get over here,” he said to me. “Hold her leg.”

I hugged my sister’s bent knee, hiding my head behind it. I didn’t dare look. My sister screamed again.

Then Dad looked at the kitchen window. He rubbed the palms of his hands against his trousers, as if to dry them.

“Son, have you left the other—?”

Before he finished the question he ran out into the hall. My sister screamed once more, though this time she didn’t even open her mouth. The cry escaped through her teeth. She splattered me with her spit.

“Breathe,” said my mother. She was still clasping my sister’s clenched fist. She moved her mouth to the ear that stuck out from behind the mask and began to breathe in a particular way, like when she’d been on the bike for a long time. “Breathe, girl . . . Don’t worry . . . just breathe, like me.”

My sister tried to imitate her. Her knee slipped out of my arms. I had to move away to avoid a blow to the face. She kicked out, hitting the table with her heel. When she managed to shake off my brother, who stepped back, her leg slipping his grasp, she lifted her waist until the top of her belly was facing more toward the wall than the ceiling, and she let it fall onto the table. Her tailbone hit the tabletop like a hammer. A sticky sound escaped from between her legs.

“I can’t breathe with this mask on!” She screamed the words through her teeth, as if the pain and rage were phlegm stuck in her throat that she could spit out. “Get this damn thing off me!”

She continued to writhe, kicking her legs. My brother and I tried to grab hold of them and regain control. I noticed that the sheet was soaking. And slippery. A bitter smell made me retch. My mother, who’d wrapped her whole body around the fist, opened her mouth to cry out when she saw my sister lifting her free hand to the mask. She managed to snag her prosthetic nose.

My father grabbed her wrist. She stretched her fingers out as far as they would go, trying to reach the mask, until Dad’s knuckles went white and my sister’s fingers stopped moving. She screamed again. This time it was a high-pitched scream that hurt my ears. My father dropped my sister’s exhausted hand as if it was something foul. Bones banged against the table.

“Stop being stupid. Your mother gave birth here.” He glanced at me. “And she didn’t make such a fuss. You’re not a little girl anymore. At your age your mother already had two children.”

“I was even younger,” she elaborated. “Twenty-six.”

My sister’s legs relaxed. When she bent them we were able to grab hold of them again. My father stood there and looked her up and down. From feet to head. He smiled. “Does it hurt?”

My brother let out a guttural sound, one of his laughs that sounded like a donkey noise. Dad looked at him, not noticing the slow movement of her arm as my sister lifted it again.

This time she was able to grasp the entire mask. She closed her hand on it. The scrape of the prosthetic material alerted my father. Knowing there wasn’t time to stop her from taking it off, he leapt on me, held my face to his belly so I couldn’t see anything, and forced me to walk backward as he pushed me down the hall. He opened the door to my room and sat me on the bottom bunk.

“You’ve been lucky,” he said to me. Then he turned his head toward the hall that led to the living room and shouted at my sister, “If you want the first thing that your child sees to be your deformed face, then go ahead!” He looked back at me and put his thumbs over my eyes. “But I’ll decide what my son sees.”

When my eyelids closed, a spot of light danced in the darkness inside my head.

Lying facedown on the living room floor, I rolled over so I could reach the patch of sun with my hand. A handful of rays that came in through a crack in the ceiling formed a circle of light no bigger than a coin. Every day it traveled along the floor of the main room from one wall to the other.

“Where does this light come from?” I closed my fingers and grabbed the empty air.

“Ask your father,” Mom replied.

She was holding the newborn in one arm, washing it with the water she’d filled the kitchen sink with. My sister had been shut away in her room for a while, after Mom came out carrying the sewing box.

By the table, my brother was putting the dirty sheet and towels in a pile. Frowning, his tongue poking out, he attempted to line up the corners of one of them. In his hands, aligning the opposite edges of a towel seemed an impossible task. He let out a long groan before throwing it on the floor. He folded his arms.

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