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Hummingbird by Lisa Shea

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Still Lost

KJ Hannah Greenberg

When my niece, an accountant of some small regard, lost her second pregnancy, her husband, an infrequent employee of a grocery store, claimed that she had aborted the fetus in order to make him look bad to his family. It had been enough, he seethed on private chat rooms, that, before their firstborn arrived, Laris had stopped polishing his shoes and warming his oatmeal. It was worse that with this newer gestation, she refused to continue to acquiescence to his private fetishes. That she miscarried was simply unendurable.
I knew, contrary to that young man’s rants, that my twin’s daughter would have made a murder pact with sadistic fiends or would have vivisected a yak and smoked the ashes of its entrails if either act would have guaranteed her a live baby. Whereas her home was a studio apartment stuffed to the walls with towering piles of secondhand newspapers, cartons of rejected toilet paper, and garbage bags full of thrift store clothes, and whereas her budget failed to cover bread, milk, or eggs, she would have enthusiastically sold her blood, her hair, and her sleep to make funds available for a second child. Before the death of that fetus, she had pushed her queasy, ungainly body to dumpster dive, to walk neighborhood dogs, and to substitute on a local paper route to save up to buy diapers and onesies.

I visited Laris while she was healing in the hospital. Her pregnancy had gone to seven months. When I entered her room, she was so drugged as to not complain about my presence. Her husband was nowhere on the floor. In fact, the nurses said that Adan had not yet showed up despite the fact that his wife had been rushed by ambulance to that place of knives and pharmaceuticals, had been taken to surgery, and thereafter had been attached to various tubing.

Laris said nothing about the lost child. Rather, she announced that I had to help her get discharged immediately so she could clean her apartment and cook for The Fourth of July. Although Adan both adored takeout and abhorred the carcinogens found in barbecue, Laris intended to prepare for the national holiday season in the same manner in which her mother had prepared before her. Rotisserie or not, potato salad with or without mayonnaise, peach cobbler or blueberry, she meant to celebrate our liberties properly.

She could not envision delegating her responsibilities to her sister, Hazel, or to her best friend, Yvonne. As for her husband’s womenfolk, his sisters, his sisters-in-law, and his mother, they remained unreliable; those same relatives couldn’t be bothered to phone words of speedy healing, let alone to ring up to see if Laris needed help after she was discharged from the hospital. Not one among them visited her room on the surgery floor or even texted to express concern about how she would lift the wash or the grocery bags. Likewise, not one among them sounded the alarm when she was rushed back to the hospital with a massive hemorrhage.

Antithetical to Adan’s family, I had a soft spot for Laris. Sure, I had other siblings, and, from them, I had other nieces and nephews. Those sweet youngsters frequently instant messaged me, regularly poked me on Facebook, or in many ways competed for my attention.

“Little” Fiona, who was studying law at Yale, never missed my birthdays. Henry Jr., who worked as a civil engineer in Boston, nearly daily sent me a connection to his Pinterest board. Selma and Lena, the twins, who were in a gap program in Prague, and young Joseph, a high school sophomore, who already represented his school at basketball tournaments, vied for my emails. None of those other children of my brothers and sisters, all the same, were my Laris.

True, Lena was named for the same deceased great-grandfather as was Lena, and Laris had attended the same university as had Henry, but none of the other shoots of my family tree were descended from my deceased twin. None of those other wonderful young men and women had cared so much about keeping me company for almost twenty years.

That is, whenever I vacationed at my brother-in-law’s, Laris asked to stay with me, even at night, choosing to sleep on the rug near my bed instead of in her large, pretty room. Eventually, I learned to place an extra pillow next to mine and to invite her to cuddle with me rather than to rest on the floor. She was the niece with whom years of pajama parties morphed into hair and makeup sessions. She was the relative who insisted on unpinning my long braid and on dabbing all manners of color on my cheeks, lids, and mouth.

When Laris grew into a preteen, she would call me to shop with her for school supplies and clothes. I helped her bake her first cake. I explained matters of physical transformation to her. By the time she reached high school, we Skyped daily about midterms, finals, and college applications. I helped her pick out her prom dress. I cried at her graduation.

Laris’ transformation, nonetheless, occurred when she was at university. During that span, Adan charmed her dad. My brother-in-law would grin and would pour two fingers’ worth of good bourbon for himself and for Adan each and every time that suitor came around. Beyond the drinks, he would exaggeratedly articulate the phonemes of the boy’s name. In fact, my dead sister’s husband sometimes giggled when pronouncing that appellation. It followed that when Adan asked permission to marry Laris, it was all my brother-in-law could do not to smother his future son-in-law with kisses.

To me, though, the sounds of that young man’s name rang flat. They echoed like the wished for squawks of patients permanently shifted to ventilators, or like the “cheerful” notes of children forced to sing while crying.

When Adan and Laris’ nuptials approached, my niece no longer sought my counsel. Rather, she told me, electronically, alternating between searching my face for glimmers of agreement, and letting tears freely slide down her own dear cheeks, that just shortly before their engagement, Adan had crowned me the family’s resident evil. More to the point, he had “illuminated” for Laris that I was one of the worst sort of person that he had ever met and that she ought to long have been wary of her association with me.

Whereas it troubled Laris, as was evidenced by the fact that she could not stop crying, that I might not appreciate her latest perspective and that her new viewpoint might be erroneous, so strong was that girl’s dream of marriage and of babies that she yielded to Adan’s impressions. More specifically, after telling me off, she left strange messages in my inbox and on my phone, hinting that either I ought to come around to her “improved” way of thinking or that I ought to do something drastic to break her experienced dissonance. Otherwise, she further intimated, I ought to have felt ashamed.

Once Laris wed, those veiled messages, too, ceased. The only person with whom my dead sister’s daughter checked in with was her spouse. When I confronted her at her father’s promotion party, Laris quoted her puppeteer, claiming that I had driven her and her husband out of my life.

She faulted me for uttering an interest in Adan’s work and for asking him about his favorite foods. I was, in her eyes, an irrefutable malevolent. She added that only a witch of a woman could act as I did, speculating, aloud, about the type of apartment the newlyweds might buy after their first lease was up, while concurrently not offering to underwrite those dreams. That I could no longer afford to maintain a car and that I was downsizing to a cheaper apartment, myself, was of no bearing to her man.

In Adan’s esteem, as “translated” by Laris (her little husband spoke no words to me), I was a beast for refusing to spend extra hours making the freshest foods with the most costly ingredients when the couple visited my brother-in-law and I, too, was a guest there. On top of that, I was monstrous for deigning to ask my niece, during once such occasion, about her plans for prenatal care. Laris spouted that only “despicable individuals” would stoop to treat her and her husband as children. I was “sinisterly wrong” for trying to prompt those young ones to think critically about their future. That I was not only a caring aunt, but also a midwife possessed of more than thirty years of professional experience, some of which covered clients with an array of difficult circumstances, made no matter.

In contrast to me, Laris’ father emptied his bank account to actualize as many of Adan’s plans as resources permitted. Without whispering a single cautionary word, my dead twin’s spouse handed over vast sums. So glamoured was that man with his imminent legacy that he gladly limited his conversations with his son-in-law to headline news, to road closings, and to recent weather. Enthusiastically, he sponsored the young couple’s purchase of a thousand dollar stroller, of three sets of 1500 thread count sheets, and of his and hers computers. My brother-in-law was frequently invited to drop in on Adan and Laris. They mentioned wanting to name their first baby after him.

Meanwhile, I experienced recurring nightmares, unintentional weight loss, and lingering irritability. I unburdened myself on my friends. One gal pal suggested pasting a smile on my face and in my voice during the times I encountered Laris. Another friend suggested a similar sort of dumb bunny smiling and nodding. Notwithstanding my willingness to implement that stupidity, my niece complained. She accused me of being bogus and declared, with notable fervor, that she refused to talk to actresses.

I hired a therapist. That counselor suggested that I redouble my efforts to “scaffold” Laris, so as not to leave my dear one without healthy support. As a result, I pushed myself to seek out invitations to stay her when Adan wasn’t home, to cook Laris’s favorite soups and puddings, and to buy her, Adan, and, later, their baby, the token gifts that my cash flow allowed.

My exertions required three buses to reach her and four more to come home. Moreover, my stays usually lasted less than an hour because I could not master my feelings for longer. I cried en route to her apartment and during my return trips. Sometimes, I cried in Laris’ apartment, too, but when I did so, I tried to grieve surreptitiously and to do so in her bathroom.

During those calls, Laris said nothing about my status as a persona non grata. Instead, she’d hug me when I arrived and when I prepared to go, telling me I was her favorite relative, and regaling me with tales of why she ought to work two and a half jobs, but Adan none. Adan had revealed himself to be, soon after their honeymoon, constitutionally frail.

In my opinion, he was frail of several additional human dimensions. He refused to pay for heat, in the winter, even when Laris was pregnant with Jerel and was fighting a severe viral infection. He refused to supplement the foods she bought, via stamps from The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and, ultimately, insisted that Laris yield all of her vouchers to him.

In retrospect, although each time Laris told me that my views were corrupt and dangerous I felt like I was being slit open without the benefit of anesthesia, it was easier to hear such sentiments than to continuously behold her decline. Repeatedly, I grimaced, but said nothing.

For instance, when Laris insisted that Adan’s desire for her to embrace a surgical birth was the most wholesome path to labor and delivery, I ran to the bathroom, but did so silently. When I reemerged, my eyes red, but dry, Laris screamed at me. “Adan is brilliant,” she screeched; it was me who was criminal. She exclaimed she’d never risk talking again, to me, about ladies’ matters. She then cleared her throat. From behind her own wet peeps, Laris implored me, once more, to approve her sagacity in not questioning her spouse. I fudged thumbs up.

In retrospect, it’s a pity that Adan’s uncle, a man who had cautioned, at the kids’ engagement party, against Laris actualizing a union with Adan, was, at the time, on bail for a single instance of alleged white collar thievery. As such, no one heeded his benevolent caution, choosing, instead, to use the fact of his words to springboard gossip about his unproven wrongdoings and about his forthcoming trial. What’s more, after that perilous announcement, Adan’s mother banned him from family functions.

Time passed. I was no longer welcomed to stopover at Adan and Laris’, even when Adan was elsewhere.

I spoke to clergy. I supposed that some large moral mistake or even a gaggle of smaller ones was sticking to my soul and generating those awful paradoxes. My spiritual guide always refused to buttress that position. Usually, he’d shake his head at my assumptions or shrug.

Sometimes, when I was very upset, he would do a bit more, recommending that I recite fresh paragraphs of Psalms. No matter the nature or degree of my expressed self-doubt, that man would volley that our community needed more women like me, who had the courage of the Bible’s Shiphrah and Puah, and that I ought to be proud, not ashamed, of my insights into human behavior. Once, he tried to buoy me by offering me a free ticket to a community spaghetti dinner.

Years later, after Jerel was buried, when I told that same pastor that my grandniece had often reported seeing Adan strike Laris, that man of cloth no longer swathed himself in sweetness and light. Rather, he asked me why I had never called the authorities. Indeed, Family Services had programs for people like Laris and Jerel. It wasn’t healthy for my grandniece to witness Adan assault Laris, especially regularly, or for her to hear Laris recurrently shriek in pain. I had judged wrong, choosing to finesse what little connection I had left with Laris instead of getting her and her daughter help.

Into the next decade, Laris had begun, yet again, to text me on Mother’s Day. Also, she’d bring Jerel, twice a year, to a pizza parlor, in a town next to mine, to celebrate either of their birthdays. Those pizza parlor meetings occurred at least a month after either of their actual celebrations and had to finish within an hour of beginning. Laris accounted for those times away from home as semiannual teacher-parent meetings. Adan never questioned why a nursery school found them necessary.

Regardless, those events always proceeded the same way; I’d hug Jerel, I’d hug Laris, and then Laris would offer up, unsolicited, that her domestic situation was seventy-five or eighty per cent improved over what it had been. I’d clamp my lips and ask whether my niece wanted pineapple or peppers on her mini pie. I knew to order mushroom for Jerel. Intermittently, Laris would glance at her cell phone. She’d clasp and unclasp her child’s wrist.

While we waited for our meal to appear, in a perky voice, I’d suggest an impromptu getaway to my apartment. Always, there would be a long pause and then, somehow, some way, each and every time after I made that suggestion, Laris’ cell phone would chirp. She’d look at her caller ID, blanch, and then pull Jerel from the pizzeria. No pizza ever got eaten. No sanctuary ever got taken advantage of.

More years passed. Adan threatened Laris against expunging his computer of porn. He dictated that Jerel could wear only short skirts and deeply cut tops. Ironically, concurrently, he forbid Laris to leave their apartment if she had as much as a single strand of hair escaping from her scarf or if her clothes were too high, too low, or were, apart from that, “unfit” for public.

Laris began to let Jerel stay with me the one week of each year that Adan attended a convention for protectors of Third World sex workers. Every summer, Jerel’s stories about Laris’ life made me cringe anew. I’ve wondered if my grandniece believed that I had allergies since my nose was constantly running whenever she came to see me.

Sometimes, as Jerel cozied next to me, having decided, like her mom, that she’d prefer the farts and snores of an old woman, who loved her, to the antiseptic welcome of a separate bedroom, I’d tell her about her mother. I’d describe how Laris used to wake me up at night to discuss the “in” crowd at high school or her latest crush. When she was a youth, Laris had conceptualized “wealth” not as a person’s material riches, but as the relative depth of human understanding possessed by a person. She had spoken about “beauty” not as a particular physical attribute, like a bosom or a backside, but as overarching spiritual splendor. She had attempted to discover the miracles locked within each individual that she met. Laris had announced, proudly, that her diaries were filled with her thoughts on the discovered “goodness” of all of her friends and family.

By the time she was a preteen, Jerel was muttering that her father had made “wealth” into the amount of money to which he had access and that he forced her mother to support him. She said, too, that the only concept of beauty that Laris had ever communicated to her was the superficial one embraced by Adan’s sisters, sisters-in-law and mother; if Adan’s family noticed their peers counting some fabric, accessory, or posture as stylish, they too, considered it as such. In turn, so, too, did Laris.

Laris needed no words to teach Jerel about “goodness,” though; “goodness” was any hours during which Adan was shooting dice, temping as a phone salesman, or elsewise not home. “Goodness” was that minority of teenagers who were bereft of a father.

Jerel never asked me why she had no other siblings. Perhaps she assumed Laris was protecting future children. No one seemed to have told Jerel about the hysterectomy Laris had undergone after hemorrhaging from her lone miscarriage. I did not elect to disclose differently.

By the time Jerel was in high school, Adan was questioning the command of the local police. He refused to abide by traffic laws or to refrain from pilfering small objects from his neighborhood’s hardware stores. His many instances of house arrest, in lieu of time served behind bars, were bought, at high price, from a gambler-turned-lawyer who Adan had met via online gaming and from a local circuit court’s judge, whose acquaintance he had made during one of his rare appearances at a twelve step program for punters.

In spite of all of that, I was surprised when I was phoned by his parents. That summons began with chitchat about their family’s “wayward” uncle, that man who had tried to warn Laris about Adan at the couple’s engagement party. That uncle had long been cleared of charges; apparently, the crime had been deflected to him by his actually guilty boss. Tired of his job and of Adan’s family, that uncle had relocated to Montana.

I made some gurgling sounds. All along, Adan’s parents had used their son’s pronouncements of me to reinforce the verity of their own deeds. They held me up as the kind of “wrong” that justified their version of “right.” More exactly, I was one among the many means by which they rationalized their habits of misogyny, of racism, and of tippling. In their world view, anyone like me, that is, a spinster of the bottommost sort, would be best suited to shut up or die.

Then they dropped their “niceties.” Adan was set for trial for stealing DVDs from a public library. A desperate Laris had called Adan’s parents, urging them to argue her out of divorce. Hence, their phone call to me was preemptive; they feared I was going to wrench away their child’s lone font of income by encouraging Laris to leave Adan.

Adan’s parents then threatened me that if I didn’t sing their child’s praises to my niece that they would scatter horrible testimony about my midwifery services all over the Internet. They warned, too, that they knew I had practiced catching babies long before I had completed my licensure and that they had no qualms turning me over to the authorities.

I should not have complied. Adan had developed a habit of seizing Laris’ electronic bank accounts to source his betting money. He had taken, too, to beating my niece with his belt, with an extension cord, or with his fist, whichever was most convenient for him, whenever she refused to turn over her latest fiduciary passwords. As well, he had begun using his whittling knife on her stomach. If Jerel was to be believed, Adan would carefully tie Laris down, duct tape her mouth, and then scratch her with his blade, so that Laris’ wounds welted, but did not bleed.

Adan’s folks did not call me a second time. “Someone” got their son’s trial dismissed on a technicality. In the end, all the same, Adan did get arraigned for pedophilic activities. He was tried, also, not too many days later, for the supposed murder of his daughter. Yet, he made it, prison official in tow, to Jerel’s funeral.

Karma is crazy. My dead twin’s husband is the one who found Jerel drowned in a bathtub. My brother-in-law had entered Adan and Laris’ unlocked apartment to take his granddaughter out for ice cream. Instead of the happy excursion that he had anticipated, my brother-in-law found himself summoning rescue. It’s a wonder the 911 operator understood him at all.

After Jerel’s funeral, Laris sought space in a shelter. To this day, she hotly defends Adan, saying that their child’s death was a horrible accident and that the fights her husband had been having with their child had played no part in Jerel’s demise. As for his sinister interactions with children outside of their family, Laris has made no comment.

In fairness, any news I hear about Laris is second hand; after the funeral, she refused to speak with me or with my dead twin’s husband. Mostly, I learn about my niece’s comings and goings from the taunting emails I receive from Adan’s folks. Instead of reading “wish you were here,” those communication state niceties like “we know where Laris is and we will consider keeping that information from Adan if you testify on his behalf at his next probation hearing.” I’ve retained a lawyer, who specializes in women´s rights

Many times, I imagine growing fairy wings, turning back time, flying to Laris’ home, and sprinkling magic dust on her and Jerel. Almost as often, I pretend that I am in possession of a two-handed sword and of the legal authority to slice off Adan’s head and those pates of his parents. The problem is that fairy wings are no longer on the market and that if I were to decapitate Laris’ husband, a vampiric dog would likely sprout from his body and attempt to wreck whatever armor I would be wearing.

Accordingly, I pray for Laris. I pray for Jerel’s soul. I pray that Adan be locked away for several lifetimes, during each of which he gets warehoused in prisons where inmates act unkindly to child abusers.

On Thanksgivings, I host my brother-in-law. We don’t speak much. He has no other place to celebrate since Adan had long since spent all of his money. When my dead twin’s husband is overtired or stoned on his sleeping pills, he talks. Most often, he revisits how, from the back of Jerel’s ambulance, he watched the hospital’s ER doors swing open and its personnel charge her vehicle. When those gowned folks lifted his grandchild permanently away, he, too, began to hate Adan.