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The Light Keeper.

This table is slit with light, fading and solidifying as threads of clouds float past the open window. Today in the early onset of Spring, two women sit across from each other, waiting for their mother to dress, waiting to take her to her doctor, or the supermarket or to whatever old age stipulates on this occasion. The women have seen many things at this table. All the family rituals of living have been realised here in each due season. At every gathering, a ceremony of pasta and meats, of wine in cheap bohemian crystal, casting stained glass tints and washing down stomachs filled with their mother's profusion of food. But the wine belonged to their father, always their father's wine at this table. And at night, their father and his wine, stained glass tints gone, alone at the table.

One of the women sitting here, she is the keeper of his memory. He is dead now and every year he grows in luminosity. For her, he has an undeniable lustre. She makes sure she polishes it, until it burnishes so brightly he becomes unrecognisable to everyone but her. Her younger sister also remembers him glinting, but only in daylight. She finds this polishing of the dead distasteful. In her memory, his last rays always faded in concert with the sun's. Here is the source of the divergence: one sister chooses to foreground light, the other shade. This dissonance in their view of paternal incandescence makes the thing that comes upon them even possible at all. For one year this divergence of forgetting and remembering widens its net and casts its gaze elsewhere. Finding its target, it pins it against the wall and gouges hard. Its arrival is so rancorous it splits these seasons of food and wine, and family gatherings immediately cease. The earth beneath the table turns dry, cracks and then opens.

The first portent of the unravelling household is the fist that bruises the table. Food and coffee spring into the air with its repeated thrusting. Then, over the rage surging across the food, the man leans across and spits hard into the girl's face. It is her mother (silent between her two daughters-she will not choose) who, with her maternal hand, firmly wipes his sticky spittle from her eyelashes (and with that, her mother's secret choice already made). The spittle, which is plenteous, forms small stalactites. They drip softly, shot with light, onto her cheeks. She keeps on talking and talking. She feels herself lift over his gale-force questions, smacking walls, hurtling through windows. What did I do? he says again and again. You know, is all she says, you know what you did. Face tainted and body threatened, she is serene here. Even the litany of female putrefaction he smears across her does not disturb her homecoming. When the downpour of his voice has reached its full potential, he moves on from the reek of her female flesh, and finally curses the God and the Saints of the house. The room stills in the arriving eye. The girl looks to the window ledge, eyes the Virgin in her pale blue robes, golden haired child on breast, sees her dolorous eyes upon her mother. Her mother is stilling it. She wipes the spit she has collected on her hands, rubs it off onto her apron and points a warning finger to his face. Not in this house, she says. You must go to your mother's house and damn God and yourself to hell there, but not in my house. The finger curves slightly and might itself be a curse, a gossamer-thin pagan shred that floats free from the ancient walls of her Catholic fortress. Maybe there really is a gouge in his body, she thinks. Maybe it is fatal. Maybe this time, he will disappear. He stands in the low lights of the room, refusing to understand anything, anything at all. It is only the mention of the police that keeps his hands lowered.

Fifteen years later at this table, the elder of the two sisters says: I don't trust you. It's like you could just turn and destroy me all over again. The younger says: I love Mum first, then you. I don't believe it, the older one says. Then don't, says her sister, don't believe it.

The elder cuts and slices, strips back to the past, to the proof she is looking for.

That day, she says looking deep into the table, was the day he became like a murderer. The younger looks too, sees her sister running, sprinting from the words, falling against the perimeter of the yard fence, as far as the family goes. She sees her hunched over the revelation; hand on fence, the only steady thing.

That was the day, she says, staring and staring, the day I started looking over my shoulder. The day I never stopped. The younger--her face trying out these strange creases of hers (she is no longer the girl with the spit in her eyes)--cries.

She goes unnoticed. Her sister's voice is just white noise monotone, has been for years. This is how she puts it: So we've never talked about it, fifteen years and I never asked about it: Is it true? Her sister thinks she knows how this will end, so she says, she pleads: What does it matter?

Again she asks, some rueful doubt from all those years ago driving her. Just tell me. Is it true? Oh, truth, her sister thinks. Her mind wanders along their old broken memories and she imagines: You rub our father's face until he is like his own glittering memorial plate, presented after twenty-five years of good and faithful service; good fellow, good man, goodbye. But what she says is: Okay, yes--yes it is true.

And it is not enough, because today she is seized by something which pushes her, prods her, shoves her into this room and tells her she wants to know it--makes her ask it: What happened? What did he do? And her sister sees the clouds thickening, drifting faster. Some hidden breeze is herding them through. She hears the questions, examines the frayed threads of the tablecloth flapping in the shade. She does not know where to go. What she thinks and what she starts to say shift apart, making room for each other: I am not sending you there, she says finally. I don't want to go there either anymore. Can we stop?

All right, her sister says, all right then. Irritation pressing against her one note voice, she says: Don't tell me what happened.

Actually, they are both relieved. Thankful for the facts that glide away, that won't be reeled off like a list of hospital injuries. They stare at the undulating shapes of light lolling across the table.

Well now I've asked. You've told me now. Now you've told me it is true. The younger stretches out, her fingers feeling the early heat. She misreads her, tips her head back. She says: So now you believe me, yes?

The older, at last, says this new thing. She pauses to say it: Well, you say it is true.

It is the tone that suggests something perished at the table underneath, on that day she spoke and then floated free. It has tripped and stumbled into another register. Her sister is tired and her calm folds away. The first signs of her real life with him appear. The fifteen-year-old questions. The questions she does not ask: How did you sleep with him all these years? How did you survive it?

Her sister doesn't need them. From the cold marble room she has lived all alone, she talks, she spills out the door. Her voice rises and falls, notes flutter out across the room:
       It's not like we are the same anymore anyway. I am cold to
   him. I have lowered a curtain between us. I have lost him.
      Notes fall, drop dead, only the sun remains:
      I am not who I was. I have changed. He does not know what I
   am thinking. He does not know me. Nobody knows me.
      And then the earth beneath the table feels soft, mutable.
   Something shifts beneath them, settling in its natural place.
      She turns her eyes from the space where she has been staring
   and asks wonderingly, like a child trying to work out how all
   the stars in the universe work all at once:
      All those years, all those years, from--how old were you?--
   Twelve? How could you say nothing? Nothing? And then, no
   other child said anything--you were the only one--how can it
   be? Do you understand?
   Yes, she says, yes I understand.
   How could he do it? How could you keep it to yourself? 

She does not like the forming words, has kept them to herself for years. The revelations she made were not the ones she kept. These are blurred and strange, not like the sweet simple lines of the lie and the truth. But she wants something of her, so she gives it away: You think it is simple. It's not like I hated him silently all the years. If I say I still don't understand, if I tell you that I loved him when you brought him home--how do you feel? He brought light into our cold dark world. He was the big bang.

Light bringer, she has named him, knowing her sister will miss the garden, miss the subtle slide of something moving slowly over childhood skin. She cools down and continues, choosing only hooded facts. They march steadily past, the sweat of their efforts hidden in shadow:
    Then one day, there was that to deal with. After that I had two
   brothers-in-law. I was twelve. I couldn't live with both. So
   first, I would go buy this ice block. In my head, I repeated its
   name each time I bit into it. It was only iced cola but it was
   good. I held each piece carefully on my tongue until it froze
   the insides of my mouth. When that stopped working, I
   played hopscotch whenever it arrived. Ice blocks and
   hopscotch. One day, after all the freezing and jumping, winter
   came and cooled everything. By July it just disappeared. By
   my birthday, I was relieved. Now I could try to love the one
   and forget the other. That's how I did it. How he did it, I

Like me, says the elder. Since that day fifteen years ago, I've lived with the two of them. They both stop and wonder how it is that they have both lived with two men in the one. She thinks of her father. Then she thinks: No, not like you.

Sometimes, I think I will scream, says her sister. I have so many thoughts, I think I will start screaming and never stop.

There, her sister thinks. The provenance of the flat lined voice is a hospital monitor protesting a fifteen-year expiration in her sister's head. The sliver thin truth that cut him lacerated her. She has always been the keeper of the lights. Her father loved her only a little, and she never knew why the boot and her sister's face went together like it did. But she remembered it came at the setting of the sun. And then her sister forgot it came at all. So when love arrived a second time, when it arrived twisted and conjoined, she took it. It came to her as the unbidden thing that nature forgot to split in two but she still took it. A mistake spewed out by accident. A sorrow that grieves the world each time it comes. But she wanted it. Her younger sister knows she will never leave the marble room where she houses what is left of him, knows she has interred him with their father. So she says this:
    It has been fifteen years since I said it. I am trying to forgive
   him. I am living by grace alone. There are better lights to live
   by. It is my choice. I tell you that what I want from you is for
   you to forgive him too. What I want from you is only this:
   Now that you have known it, I want you to let it go away. 

Across the table, the sisters look at each other in the ribbons of sun. The elder's face loses something: a light snuffs out, quietly dies. You will not go to the police?

It is a grief, barely uttered, to which she replies: We have only lived half-lives, the both of us. No.

And as she speaks her forgiveness, she decides she means it: Let God and the angels and the demons and heaven and hell deal with the morbidity of the eyes her sister cannot see. And if not that, then let the earth take him. Fold him into her and smother his eyes with worms and dirt and make him good again, part of a tree offering shade. Or a small leaf of green grass in a field of millions.

This Christmas, will you come?

Years since she's seen the shades of light in her. Let their father burn bright, she thinks. Let him love her beyond death, her one pure space: Yes, I will come.

As she goes to leave, she holds her, feels her sister's discomfort, disregards it, knows she will never recover, and thinks: I will fill the gap I have left in the family albums. I will come and take the space so there will be no reminder in the photographs. So no relatives admiring the large abundant family will innocently ask: But where is she? Why is she is never here?

On this condition she tells her sister as she goes: Don't tell him about this conversation. Don't tell him anything. And tentatively, her sister says: Yes, yes. You don't have to speak to him at all. Just come.

Yes, she says. None of us will really speak to him, she thinks. This is the point.

Sitting at the table alone now, she considers the years. On the day this family table shook with rage, she was surprised to find that no one believed her. The family had been made with wine and pasta, with love and loyalty. To sanctify it, their mother ensured it belonged to the Virgin and the Child. Nothing, they thought, could unpick the wool their mother had knitted across and between them. But it snapped away--their mother's hands were only human--and the family fell into the cracks beneath the table. She made sure of it. The girl disappeared with a persistence, which surprised them. Her absence hovered at the tables at Christmas, at Easter, at birthday parties. Children were born and grew in the vacuum she left, and her old man died in his low lights, far from her fingertips easing him over. She became the hidden lesion, the injurious ache at the base of their ritual gatherings.

Then, unexpectedly, over the years, melancholic utterance began to ripen in them. Circles and fragments of returns that had left her years before shifted over to them. Disturbed thoughts jutted into their uneventful days, shocking them into the thought of her at twelve. She was only twelve. Unable to push the images away, half spoken apologies became sudden visitants, appearing in whispered snatches, tumbling out--a burst of tears rushing and then withdrawing like a sudden king tide, engulfed then gone before she could hold them. In all of this, only her sister had held out--half loving, half hateful, always watching.

She returns to the place she vacated. She looks at her mother's tablecloth aged with pale yellow sun. The ground beneath her feet is ossified. His light is dead, buried somewhere down there. She spreads the notes of her sister's voice across its grave. Nails it shut with her final words, she says: You have arrived at the place of debt. Here you will turn to dust well before you die. You will be forgiven, and I will draw near to you again. But revenants drawing near can bring no relief. They will cling to you in the low lights, for you will not bid them enter. They will circle you unceasingly, for you will not let them home. This is how you will pay your debt.
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Author:Zavaglia, Liliana
Article Type:Short story
Date:May 1, 2012
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