You fought sleep like the enemy you thought I was. You tore into the night with your eyes opened wide. You blew away dreams like they were someone else’s thoughts that stole into your skull. You screamed and beat the metal bar against your little bed. You did it and then laughed at the sounds you had made.
You sat in the back of the car with your eyes open, head lolling. But your eyes seemed trained on my image in the rearview. What you could see of my eyes and forehead, pressured into being by your eager and inscrutable gaze.
You never slept with your eyes open because you never slept. Cantankerous creature. The opposite of death, you were something that never ever went away. That never ever stopped watching over everything. Tiny little scepter, strange silent ghost with big eyes that stared, never moved. What was I supposed to do? Your green eyes blackened. What was I supposed to do? Hell is for children and the dead never sleep. And I’ll sleep when I’m dead. And I slept like the dead. And how can the blackness appear at the edges of sight when the day is so bright overhead?
To train you out of this looking, I took you to graveyards. I wanted to show you what death meant. They wouldn’t let us in at the morgue. Strange creature, I held your hand at the hospital doors and told you what was inside and you asked to go there. I wanted punishment and you asked to go there. I imagined the white coat sliding some corpse out of a long metal tube, the refrigeration humming like a roomful of bees.
The doctor looked at me like I was sick. But I wanted to scare you into sleep, you strange little girl.
So we went to the cemetery on the edge of town, the one across the road from another midwestern wideopen field. Inside the gates, we could hear the fluttering bookpage sound of wind through the corn, thick leaves caressing, green on green.
You were the one who said it sounded like books. And I thought of you lying belly down in the backyard, coloring books all around you, crayons scattering the grass.
We got out of the car, book pages whispering. The heat had a personality of its own, like someone who stands too close when they talk. Someone who can’t get enough of themselves.
This is where we learned the math thing. The compulsory way you added things up. With the numbers everywhere you looked, you had to keep adding, subtracting. You told me, proudly, as you were proud of every goddamn thing that you did, “Esther died when she was 73 years old,” “Robert was 20,” “Carmen Maria was 85, no, 86 years old.” Then you started talking about days of the week. And how everybody got born on a day of the week and everybody died on a day of the week, and wouldn’t it be nice if they put that down too? I thought how everyone was born a Wednesday in our family. All of us Wednesday’s children and so full of woe.
I wanted to trip you then, throw you down the hill. Knock your head against Carmen Maria’s headstone. You just kept walking. You kept adding. The numbers started to grow in your head. You said your head hurt, you wanted out of the sun. I made us keep going. I made you walk ahead, so the numbers streamed out behind you. It was amazing the way you added everything up. And you liked it at first, then you hated it. Like people who can’t stop biting their nails. The strange satisfaction of ripping off one jagged edge is the despair that causes hangnails to bleed.
Too much of anything, my mother would say. Too much takes all pleasure away.
I made us walk farther. The sun started falling on the field. Headstones cast shadows. The cornfield took on an orangish glow. A semi went by on the road between us and the cornfield, shuddering loudly in downshift as it approached our small town. You started crying. We went into the lot with the babies. Your routine became shorthand. “Billy, 5,” “Rachel, 14 months,” “Jason was 2,” “Jared, 2,” “Stephen and Eric, 2, 2.” “Mom, can we stop this?”
I don’t know what I thought we were accomplishing there.
“Mom, can we stop this?”
I said nothing.
“Can we go?”
And then you closed your eyes and sat down. And I watched as you went to sleep. You snored lightly and stopped looking at me.
“Carrie?” I said.
“Carrie?” And it was true. Sweat darkened your bangs against your forehead. Red flush on your cheeks, you really slept.
I sat down and took the book out of my purse, took out my cigarettes. I shifted to another headstone downwind from you. I opened my book, let the wind blow through it, the quiet susurration of pages mimicking the ocean of corn.