The Best Short Story

Erica Heusser, “Stitches”

As I tear away the husks, pale silk strands fall from the corn and cling to my skin. The August sun, low in the sky, glares through the open screen, its light falling across my hands and spilling over the counter’s edge. My mother’s back faces the window, her gray hair gathered into a tight knot at the nape of her neck. Mim rubs her head along the molding and issues a weak moan. I reach into the overhead cabinet for the cat food. This could have been the dusk of any other day, but my hands are heavy. My throat is thick with something I can’t swallow.

*

I stumbled into my parents’ bedroom and lowered myself onto the bed. My head was hot and throbbing, my balance thrown off by a migraine. I was certain my mother kept her aspirin in the nightstand, and was relieved to hear the rattle of a pillbox as I tugged the heavy drawer open. Too lightheaded to bother with a glass of water, I pinched two pills and swallowed them dry.

A strong glare coming in through my parents’ curtains made my eyes water. As I shielded my gaze, it fell upon my mother’s journal, lying on the bottom shelf of her nightstand. I was suddenly struck by the silence of the house. My father had left early for work, and my mother was cleaning at the McGills.’ She’d begun housekeeping for two families when my father’s architecture firm hit a slump last year.

Mim crept stealthily around the doorjamb and into the room, her orange tail curled into a question mark. My mother’s book caught my eye again. I hesitated, then reached into the nightstand and picked it up. I had the sense of holding her entire being in my hands. The yellow blossoms on the cover had faded into the white background, appearing as accidental as juice stains against the dark green leaves. My face was hot as I ran my thumb down the green cloth spine. The book – scarcely half an inch thick – felt so small between my fingers, but something like fear fluttered in my chest.

My mother is a private woman; she loves quietly, entirely. Her voice is mellow, her words resolute. When I was a child, she would draw me into her lap and hold me, wordlessly, like she was afraid to let go. I used to steal into my parents’ bedroom when I couldn’t sleep. Often I’d find her alone, propped up against the mahogany headboard in a pool of lamplight, scrawling in her journal. She’d look up with a faint smile, close the book and slide it into the nightstand, making room for me. From the bedroom, we’d hear the familiar sounds of my father downstairs in his studio: the buzz of his desk lamp, the soft crackle of tracing paper. His workday had neither a beginning nor an end.

In a sweep of guilt, I slid the unopened journal back onto the shelf. I staggered back to my bedroom and slid under the sheets. It felt strange to lie in my old room, to trace that same wandering crack across the ceiling until it disappeared behind the bookcase.

Light filtered in through the eyelet curtains, scattering bright ellipses on the faded pink walls. My mother had sewn them by hand during her pregnancy, twenty-six years ago. I pictured her sitting by the window in the empty nursery, fingering the white fabric draped across her lap. The image was comforting, the bed sheets cool against my skin, but a feverish itch hindered my sleep.

*

The McGills, she wrote, are out of town. When I arrived, their impatiens had wilted. My intrigue was tempered by the first few entries. I’d let the thin, cream-colored pages fall open on their own. The letters leaned forward, balancing precariously along the fine baselines like tiny black birds on a wire, poised to take wing. Carl has begun a new project. Long hours in the studio again tonight. The pages were slightly rippled from the pressure of her ballpoint pen. They seemed to carry some weight that her voice wouldn’t allow.

I don’t know what I’d expected to find. Her words were like tangled black threads. I wanted to pull them from the pages, somehow stitch up all of her silences. Carl’s working, Nell’s asleep in her room. Eleanor, you would have done better. Eleanor. My mother’s sister. Though she was my namesake, I ‘d never learned much about her. At eighteen, she had lost her life to polio. My mother dropped out of high school shortly after. This April is unusually cold. I went to work in the garden this morning and found the soil still frozen.

The pressure in my head had grown unbearable. I replaced the book on its shelf and returned to bed, slipping into a deep slumber. The air had cooled and settled by late afternoon when I awoke to the screen door’s clasp. Sometimes I get caught between sleeping and waking. I recognized my mother’s quick step on the kitchen tiles and pulled my sheets aside, still damp with perspiration. I found her standing at the sink with her back to me, pulling ears of corn from a paper bag. Does he see me? She tossed a glance over her shoulder.

“You mind doing the corn for dinner?” Eleanor, at times I think she is more you than me. With a sense of duty, I took my place at the counter.

*

We work in near-silence, the quiet disrupted only by the rip of a husk and my mother’s knife striking and scoring the cutting board. My thoughts are ripe, but they wither on my tongue. Mim tiptoes between my ankles, her tail tickling the backs of my knees. As I drop the ears of corn into the pot, boiling water splashes up, stinging my hands. My eyes burn long after the pain is gone. Sometimes I still wish it had been me. The naked kernels, hard as pearls, grow soft.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes