Paperheart by Chris Castle
He saw her boots first. Sherry red cowboy boots she bought on her fifteenth birthday. She’d been three bucks short so he bought them up for her. He called her name and watched the boots rise. Moments later, she was in his arms crying, his sister’s tears running free, settling on his skin.
The last time he’d been in the house, his mom had sat on the porch, book open, waiting as always. The place that had kept her last breath, their father before her. A place of timber and paint that absorbed their words, their laughter their quiet passing. He looked up to high awkward beams, a cobweb hung in the far corner, dull and glistening amongst the wood.
He read the will through with her, reassuring her, drinking the pots of coffee she made. They filled the silences and the echoes of the house as they moved, acted. Came out to the back garden, their mom’s story of the house who kept an appetite rattling in his head. When he found himself in an unfamiliar place, which was often, he remembered that story, settled himself with it, and grounded himself. Whispered it out loud until he found sleep.
His sister swept the floors, the heat slowing her as the day went on. He boxed things up, looking over to her from time to time. The sun rolled over them like a warm tide, the two of them little more than lost children all over again. Her tears rolled but the sun dried them almost as soon as they fell.
In the evening they ate a meal, waiting for her husband to arrive. He was driving cross-country, stopping to meet clients and such as he did. He rang each few hours, her voice low to begin, rising like a lullaby or a spoken song when the children came on the line. As he washed the plates, the car arrived in the front, the lights illuminating the windows, so he had to draw his hand up to block the beams.
He saw them off, making times to return for the funeral the next day. She couldn’t stay in the house and he understood why. It was no longer a home, but a house, to be sold and held in photographs, memories, children’s sketches. The house now a weapon to her, a reminder of tears still to shed. He held his hand high until they spilled off down the road in a cloud of dust. Tomorrow she would return to herself, accepting condolences, hugs and messages. Returning to a woman he no longer knew or understood. He stepped out, rubbed the footprints of her cowboy boots into the dirt.
He sat in the kitchen for a time, trying to hear the echoes of his sister, his mother. Looking for her now in the edge of the spreading shadows, the edge of mirrors, the reflection on the perfect sheen of the knives and spoons.
The sunlight slipped away and the evening took hold. He walked from room to room, each lit by the stars. He tried to remember her voice, the way she moved around the furniture. He wondered what her last meal was, her last dream, what she wore the day she died. Somehow this seemed important, the selection of clothes, the order she placed them on, smoothed them down. The last person she spoke to, the last time she laughed unexpectedly, uproariously. When she laid her fingertips on the blades of grass, as he had seen her do so many times before.
Stars appeared on the sky. He remembered how she explained them to him. Constellations and information, which seemed so important when he was small. Her eyes clear and glassy, like a perfect, dewy-eyed drunk when she looked up to the moon. He coughed into his hand, found his hand shaking. He sipped his whiskey and drew himself away from the window.
He noticed that the room was filled with paper. Old books belonging to his father, bill’s receipts, correspondence. How they kept it out of responsibility. And now nothing mattered. He ran his hands over it all, dust gathering on his skin. He stood in the centre of the room, surrounded by all of this. He walked out, returned with a bowl of soaped water. He put a record, an old vinyl, on her record player. He put his hands deep into the water and reached over to the stacks of paper. The newspapers became a thick sturdy body, curved into ribs, hips. The colors began to run, the flesh pale, with flashes of red, blue. Thick black shadows all around, giving the body tone and shade.
He pushed the collarbone tight, pictures and sketches forming cheeks, a brow. He squatted and carved a hole in the centre, a space for a pulpy heart. He collected each love letter, moulded it between his fingers. He took the knife he had used hours before, drew blood from his forearm, close to the artery. Lifted it, let it pour onto the heart until it took the colour. He patted it down, pushed it into the cavity. He took receipts, bills and wadded them tight, patted them over the heart.
He fashioned legs, arms, from paperback books, hard-backed spines. Birthday cards for fingertips, bookmarks for bones, chocolate box soles. Took the wrappers, the photographs and held her face in his hands. He took the old blanket, used for picnics, full of crumbs and kisses and a thousand family fingerprints and tore a summer dress into place. The record sleeves ripped into strips, providing scars and beauty spots, her age and her youth.
He stood back, saw margins in the sky where the day was beginning. He bandaged his arm, stood back. A few hours from now people would fill the rooms, crossed in black, unsure of how to feel. They would stay a while, then return to their lives. He touched her face, curved features. The face is the sum of the body’s history. Instead of recreating her, he made her from them all. His father’s eyes, his sister’s half smile, his own skin, full of fear and laughter. Beautiful and flawed, patchwork and perfect. The paper thinned, ran out. He sat on the floor, looked at the print, the blood on his hands.
The night receded, the dawn began. He looked to the paper angel, as high as the beams, as wide as the room. It filled the empty house, the haunted floors. He looked out for the cars, the living, not wanting to see either. He looked back to the angel, saw the bloodied, bleeding paper heart beat, flicker. The sun slipped through the windows, blushing the skin, strengthen the bones. The darkness died and the shadow of the paper angel moved across him. Somewhere he heard dust kick up, throats clear. He took one last look and then stepped out to the back door, down the creaking steps and away into the long desert road.
Chris Castle is English but currently works in Greece. He has sent his work out this summer and been accepted 50odd times. His influences include Ray Carver and the films of PT Anderson.