A Free Short Story
by Kate Daniel
Light sifts through the broken bits of plastic and glass and metal. Twist, and the pattern falls apart, forming a new one. See how it looks like a snowflake? No two snowflakes are alike, did you know that? Never two the same. Snowflakes from the sky, snowflake patterns in the magic tube, no two alike.
The magic of a kaleidoscope blocks the kaleidoscope of the hospital around her. Hospitals are full of fragments, life and death in pieces, unexplained requests over the intercom, urgencies with no beginning or end visible to people trapped in the sterile waiting rooms. The little boy sitting next to her is a stranger, but not as strange as the figure of her own mother. That’s not Mother sitting there, clenching a soggy Kleenex, chewing the lipstick off her bottom lip. It can’t be. If that’s Mother, then the wasted man in the hospital bed was Dad. His face against a harsh white pillow was too haggard, unfamiliar.
Better not to remember that. Much better to share a toy with a child. The little boy sits apart from his own fragments of family, a father who exchanges a few worried words with Mother, a slightly older brother. Pieces of two unrelated families, lives jumbled together forever by whatever patterns led each to this conjunction. Memories of the face against the pillow will always be mixed with this young stranger’s face smudged with forgotten tears, lost in the wonder of a cheap cardboard-and-plastic kaleidoscope bought on impulse at the hospital gift-shop.
Around them, the patterns of the hospital shift and turn. Nurses pass, orderlies, doctors, all moving with a speed that says Purpose, but the purpose is never explained. Mother talks at the boy’s father, who talks at Mother. Neither listens; the comfort is in the speaking. The brother begins to whine, wanting TV, wanting Nintendo, wanting the attention his father, busy talking at, can’t supply now. She ignores them, ignores the changing patterns of the hospital, and plays with the little boy, showing him infinity trapped inside a cardboard tube.
But the patterns coalesce around a doctor who does not hurry by, a doctor in a blue hospital smock, mask pushed down and hanging loose around his neck. He confronts Mother, his face grave.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
And all the patterns fall apart as she realizes her father is dead.
Nothing in the house had changed, but everything looked different. Smaller, cramped, dingy somehow. Partly it was because of the years since I’d last seen it. Who was it said you can’t go home again? I hadn’t tried in a long time.
Mostly it had been the words. Cirrhosis. Dead. Daddy. Those three words didn’t belong together, couldn’t be together. But they were. Quick and easy, as such things went. So the doctor said, and he saw enough to know, but it hadn’t been easy. Hell was a better word. The whole three weeks are a frozen slice of Hell in my memory, beginning with the phone call from Mother.
I had laughed, of course. “Cirrhosis? That’s what drunks get.”
“Yes.” Impossibly, that was all she said. “Yes.”
It came out in pieces, memories that shifted position as I watched. The laughter and good humor, the dozens of friends, the stops at the club, an endless Club of veterans’ associations filled with men all around the same age. Some pieces that had never fit fell into place at last. Mother’s tears late at night, endless worries about money even before Daddy lost his job. But most of the pieces slipped around, refusing to remain a part of any pattern. I remembered my childhood, but did I know what had happened?
Mother came in. “Everyone will be here soon. If it’s not too much trouble, I could use some help in the kitchen.” There was sarcasm in the voice, an old pattern. “People expect to be fed after funerals.”
I bit back an equally sarcastic response. Too much alike. That was what Daddy always said about us. Instead, I followed her to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. There wasn’t much else to do; cousins and aunts had supplied food, trays, dishes. Aunt Myrtle was already there, fussing at Mother to go lie down, heaven’s sake, Mary, it’s not like you haven’t got enough to worry about. Another pattern, this one, midwestern funerals. As many covered dishes as a church supper. Myrtle would have been shocked if Mother had actually gone to lie down, unable to comprehend if Mother had told everyone to go home and leave her alone. Funerals were for the family, and the widow was the star of the show. Daughters who trekked off to the wilds of New Mexico didn’t fit.
I had survived desert summers. You endure, and finally it passes. I had survived Daddy’s illness, the funeral and the relatives. But summer leaves behind desert fall and winter, a pattern that repeats with little change. This had been more like a sand storm, when the world is rearranged between one day and the next. Familiar landmarks were changed or gone, scoured away by the blowing sand.
Mechanically I rinsed a cup left sitting on top of the television. There was nothing else to do; the aunts and cousins had cleaned ruthlessly, not even leaving pans to soak in the sink. Mother was sitting at the kitchen table, the only other dirty cup in the house in front of her full of untasted coffee.
“Mom? You okay?” Stupid, the questions people ask at times like this, but there was a reason for it. I wanted one of her cutting replies, a hint of temper, the polished daytime surface that had always been Mother, remote from the night-sound of tears. I had fought Mother for years; I wanted that pattern to still be the same.
“I don’t know. Guess I’ll have to be. It’s not the first time I’ve had to manage.” And I watched, appalled, as tears slid down her cheeks and the private night-sound of her crying filled a spotless kitchen. She never cried in front of me.
I tried to comfort her, awkward with the role-reversal. But when she started to talk about Daddy, I fled. The man she was so bitter about was no one I had ever known. Every incident was twisted by the stranger-husband my mother remembered instead of the father I thought I knew.
Overnight company was bedded down, asleep in the basement family room on cots and couches transformed into temporary beds less comfortable than the floor. When I was young, my bedroom had served as guest room and every visitor had displaced me to the basement. Now I was almost a guest myself, my room almost mine once more. Mother’s sewing cabinet sat in one corner next to my old bookshelf, a set of extra folding chairs leaned against the wall below a cheap print of Manet’s waterlilies that I’d picked up on a class field trip to the Art Institute. My possessions and Mother’s had mingled in the ten years since I’d left home. But some of my childhood remained. The dust ruffles on the bed, faded now but still the pattern I had chosen. Annie, my favorite doll, who had started as a bride but had become so many other things, lacy white gown long lost to rags. The bright primary colors on a set of folk and fairy tales for children.
And my kaleidoscope. I crossed to the bookshelf, built years before by my father. Daddy wasn’t a carpenter; the wobble in the uneven legs had been built in. The kaleidoscope lay on top as it had always done, bright brass gathering any stray light beams in the room and hinting at magic visible within. I picked it up.
Pieces of silver foil. Clear stones in many colors. A gold pin, a tiny key, a red sequin. A spiral like a flattened bit of corkscrew. The kaleidoscope is old, a substantial brass tube like an old-fashioned spy glass, suitable for a pirate in an Errol Flynn movie. When she was a little girl, she had searched through it many times for an island of buried treasure, from the crow’s-nest of the elm tree.
Hold it to the light and look down the barrel. The mirrors inside, good ones instead of the cheap metal reflectors of dime-store toys, multiply jewels and silver and gold, the bits of colored glass and metal foil, into a pattern of riches. The treasure wasn’t buried; it was in her hands the whole time. The first time Mother read the tale of Aladdin to her, she recognized the cave. She’d seen it many times, through the tube.
The memory-pictures overlay the gleam of glass jewels. Daddy laughing, picnics at the lake, backyard barbecues. Now someone has twisted the tube, and other pieces are falling in front of them, almost forgotten pieces, unnoticed ones…
I remembered when Daddy gave me the kaleidoscope. I’d always loved the little toy ones. Remembering them, I’d bought one and given it to the little boy in the hospital waiting room. Sometimes I had tried to show the patterns to Mom and Dad, but the little plastic pieces always shifted when I passed the tube to them, no matter how careful I was. I don’t know where Dad found this one. It was old, possibly an antique, not a child’s toy. But it had been mine, from my ninth birthday on. My birthday party was over, cake and ice cream eaten, and I was getting ready for bed when he finally came home. “Here,” he said. “I didn’t forget.” And he had looked at Mother.
I hadn’t paid any attention to that look at the time; I’d been too pleased with the polished old brass tube, the bits of colored glass and metal that I was sure were jewels and which were certainly classier than the plastic fragments found in most kaleidoscopes. But it came back to me now, a look of defiance and triumph and shame, all mixed. He’d promised to be home for the party, of course, but he’d had to work late that night.
Work late. How many times had I heard that? “Daddy’s working late tonight.” “He called and said we’d better go on, he has to work late.” “Sorry I missed the concert, pumpkin, I had to work late. Bet you were terrific.”
I wondered if the magic was still there. I had always been able to see anything I wanted to through the kaleidoscope, if I tried hard enough. The riches of Aladdin’s cave faded and I would see the Sugarplum Fairy or the Snow Queen. Those were the first, triggered by the snowflake patterns caught within the tube. Later I’d been a pirate, looking for treasure through my spy-glass. It had been years since I’d remembered that, the way I could see anything if I tried. Things shifted always, Sugarplum’s ice crown becoming spun sugar, tropical islands turning into coral atolls into jungle-covered mainland, Dorothy melting into Ozma while Toto and the Lion changed places. But if I wanted to see the EmeraldCity through my magic spy-glass, the glass stones became green gems, framing a picture of Ozma’s home town.
I had an overactive imagination, I was told, almost as if it were a medical condition like an overactive thyroid. In high school I’d used it less, only looking at the pretty patterns occasionally, and I’d labeled the games I’d played as just that, games made up by an over-imaginative child.
I wasn’t a child any more. But I wanted to see through the kaleidoscope now more than I ever had as a little girl. Being in my old room had brought a rush of memories. What I’d seen hadn’t just been invented by a kid who read too much. I’d seen coconut palms fringing a white sand beach around a turquoise lagoon, a scene recognized years later in a travel magazine. We never had such magazines in the house. A strange mechanical man talked with the Wizard; I didn’t discover Tik-Tok until several years later. I hadn’t made it all up.
Want had shown things in the kaleidoscope to a child; need could now show things to the adult me. And if I could see a world, maybe it could be real. I’d always felt one step would put me on that island, but I’d never had the nerve to take it.
First I had to remember how it worked. If memories can be festooned with cobwebs, these were. I hadn’t thought back to grade school in years. And my solitary games, solitary because no one else wanted to play weird stuff like pirates instead of Barbies, had been something done rather than thought about. But the way of it came back to me, the way memories do, in pieces. I had to put new items in the kaleidoscope. Not physically, not by opening it up, but by picturing pieces of what I wanted to see. Tropics, palm trees, sailing ships, treasure chests. The EmeraldCity, Dorothy, the Scarecrow. Snowflakes, a nutcracker, the Land of the Sweets, fairyland. The pictures the kaleidoscope had shown me were detailed beyond a child’s imagination, but I had to supply some of the pieces myself.
So, what pieces could I furnish now? I sat with the brass tube in my lap, imagining the pieces of my childhood, all my memories, a family album of mental snap-shots of happy days, solid family, loving parents. I wanted my past back, wanted it to be what I remembered, the way I remembered. In my memory of the past, Daddy didn’t have a drinking problem. If I could get that memory back and make it reality, Daddy wouldn’t be dead of cirrhosis and Mother wouldn’t be a bitter widow facing a mountain of debts. It was worth a try.
When I had all the pieces I could think of in place, I picked up the kaleidoscope and looked through it.
Gentle splashes, waves against the side of a rowboat. The lake is small, and only a light breeze ruffles its surface, occasionally stiffening to make the choppy waves dance. A deep blue sky offers no clouds to protect against a midsummer sun, reflecting itself in bright stars across the water’s surface. The oars dip, shedding bright diamond drops as they break surface then dip again. The boat moves, spinning lazily on its axis in response to the uneven strokes of the oars.
The man wielding the oars sweats and swears, and the right one slips from his grasp. He swears again and reaches for it as it floats away. The maneuver sets the small boat rocking, water slopping over the side as the other two occupants sit frozen, waiting for the boat to capsize.
She is afraid to move, afraid to upset the boat, afraid to ask for the oar. She has already asked her father once to let her row, and her ears are pink at the memory of his profane response. The picnic has gone on and on, endless beers, and her escape attempt with her friend, renting a rowboat to flee the arguments on shore, had been ruined when he announced he would teach them how to row a boat. She is afraid to look at her friend, afraid of the pity and scorn she knows is on the other girl’s face. The diamond-sparkle of sun on waves makes her eyes water, half-blinding her, and she blinks back tears.
Luck finally moves the boat toward shore, and the girls stumble onto the pier. They move away quickly, as the owner of the rental boats starts to yell about the missing oar. There is no scorn on her friend’s face, just round, round eyes.
“Wow,” she says. “Your family sure knows how to have fun.”
The kaleidoscope bounced as it hit the carpet. Carpeting was a new touch; when this had been my bedroom, the floors had been bare except for a rag rug Susie had made for me. She’d made it the same summer as the picnic at the lake, the summer we both turned fifteen.
But the memories the kaleidoscope had shown were wrong, twisted out of shape somehow. I remembered that picnic very well. Sure, Daddy had drunk a lot of beer, he usually did–the whole hell of what Mother had told me came back. I pushed it away. That didn’t change what had happened at the lake. Susie and I had gone out in the rowboat with Daddy, but we were the ones who made it go in circles. We’d never rowed before, and we couldn’t keep our strokes equal. Daddy laughed so hard he almost fell overboard. There was no anger, no swearing, no fear. Susie had said our family had fun but she had meant it, without the sarcasm of the false memory-Susie. Maybe he had been drunk–again Mother’s words hit me, all the times he had been unable to drive, the “naps” on the couch that were more than sleep. Still, the picnic hadn’t been like that.
I’d done something wrong, that was all, provided the wrong pieces for the kaleidoscope. Daddy hadn’t been angry. Mother’s anger at him was a deep, cold thing, but it had been carefully hidden for years. All I’d ever seen was the anger she directed at me, which had finally driven me from home. But there was Tik-Tok–maybe her anger had gotten into the picture the way Tik-Tok had gotten into my Oz even though I hadn’t read that book. Her unseen rage could have been twisted into the fury I’d felt in the kaleidoscope-lake from my father. Anger had been present, even if I hadn’t seen it. The pattern contained pieces I couldn’t remember.
But maybe I could take pieces away. I concentrated, mentally removing the beer, the anger, everything but the lake and the rowboat and the picnic and Susie. And Daddy.
There is no breeze, no stir of air above the water. Heat and humidity settle like a wet sponge, making breathing difficult. The two girls pull at the oars, sweat dripping into their eyes, as the man sitting in the end of the boat looks toward shore. He moves his head to do so, as the boat rotates, spinning slowly in place in the middle of the lake.
Heat and stillness muffle sound and life as the girls struggle, trying to equalize their strokes. At last the man reaches for the oars himself. “We’ve wasted enough time out here. I have to get back to work.” With a few strokes, he sends the boat across the water to the pier. The woman on the shore has already packed up the picnic basket. He waits, glancing at his watch impatiently, as the girls return the oars to the rental stand and grab their belongings. He’s not sure how they talked him into this. Picnics are a waste of time.
Something had twisted the pattern again, making Daddy workaholic instead of alcoholic. Not much improvement, if that glimpse was accurate. He had always been a hard worker–I thought back to all the times he’d worked late. Some of those times probably had been work. The easy, pop-psych terms came to mind: compulsive, addictive personality. Possibly they were all true. But that version of the past hadn’t been.
I kept trying all that night, seeing the picnic again and again, always wrong, always a twisted pattern. In one, my mother was the drinker. That one scared me so badly I almost gave up. But I went on. There were more pieces to the past, to memories, than I’d ever realized. All the pieces made up my father, both the way I remembered him and the way I now knew him to have been. I couldn’t find the right balance of pieces to make my memories the only reality, but I was sure such a balance existed. It was just a question of seeing the right things.
I tried again the next night, and the next. But by then my memories were confused, mixing what I saw in the kaleidoscope with what Mother told me with what I remembered remembering. And the more she had talked, breaking the silence-barrier of years, the more the patterns shifted. By the time I went back to New Mexico, I was convinced there’d never been a pattern at all. I was an over-imaginative child still. The kaleidoscope came back with me, to sit on top of the bookcase in my office. My attempt to shift the past I labeled “grief-induced insanity,” tucked into a neat mental file folder, and closed away in a filing cabinet in the back of my mind.
All this was five years ago. Mother and I get along better now than we ever did while he was alive. She’s relaxed, now she no longer needs to keep his secret. I think she’s even rediscovered the love she once felt for him, buried beneath the bitterness. Every once in a while, I trip over a memory that doesn’t match Mother’s memories. But I’ve accepted the past now.
She visited me last week, though, and picked up the kaleidoscope. “I remember when he bought this for you,” she said, looking through it. “It was more than we could afford, but he’d missed so many parties and school concerts. He wanted to make it up to you. This was always your favorite toy, I remember. I don’t blame you, it’s lovely. You used to tell me you could see anything you wanted to through this.” She twisted the end of the barrel, holding it up to the light.
“That’s right,” I said. “Anything at all.”
Last night I started to write down my memories of childhood, the old ones, the memories of what I thought was going on around me. Drinking was only one part of what my father was. Someday, I’ll find the pattern again, our life as I remember it, and this time it will be the only reality.
Look through the brass tube at the bits and pieces of a life. A man’s laughter, a woman’s tears, a child’s memories. Twist the tube and watch the patterns fall into place, a new one with each twist. Knowledge adds new pieces, and new pieces change the patterns forever.
Patterns look like snowflakes through a kaleidoscope. No two snowflakes are alike, did you know that? Never two alike. And you can never find the same pattern again.
Never two alike.
First published in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, December, 1997
Copyright © 1997 Kate Daniel