Apples and Trees
Abracadabra, he whispers. My soon to be ex-husband, forever Rae’s father stands over us wearing black clothes and a black hat. This will make everything okay again, he mutters. He sprinkles something glittery from a glass bottle all over Rae and me. Fire flares in our eyes as pieces of our faces, our bodies melt and float away like giant glowing ash. We’re screaming and he waves a black stick around and cries, why can’t everything just be okay again?
Shaking her head, Rae held my twisted fingers to her damaged eyes. No, not yet. Close your eyes, please Muhmuh. Make a wish.
I couldn’t stop shaking.
Rae patted my hands, twisted around and kissed me, still keeping my hands over her eyes. Magic. We’re in the magic place.
I don’t close my eyes anymore. When you close your eyes, everything changes. When you open them again, the world you knew is gone. I don’t sleep. One of the medications I had insisted on, even after they’d repaired my eyelids enough to mostly open and close, was one to keep me from sleeping. I had to appear before the administration and the company in person to get special approval and made sure that I presented it as a necessity towards my indentured service as the face of domestic violence. After I made sure that they would heal us both.
I had always looked down, into my daughter’s face as she nursed, onto the top of her head as I carried her, breathing in the scent of her baby hair. After that last beautiful sleep where I had drifted off next to her mouth pressed against my heart and awoken to her father torching us with a fifty cent bottle of acid, I was only going to look up. After all, I wanted to remember her as she really looked so I didn’t need to look down at her anymore.
I stared over Rae’s head out the barred window of our rundown bungalow. The giant LED screen that had filled the sky with our emergency room photograph of our purple splattered skin and seared eyes was gone. And with it, the blue sky that I’d though still existed behind it. Drones had finished sealing the atmosphere against the eroded ozone layer. The sky looked ill, cast all over in a silver glare the shimmering frequency of a migraine.
Just today, on my 13th birthday, close your eyes and make a wish.
My hands slid lightly from the ropy, sagging skin of her cheeks. Our picture was gone. Our two sets of medications were now only one. Had been dwindling over the last months until they were only enough for one daily dose. The only reconstructive surgery we were allowed was directly related to infection and maximizing the horror of how we looked to the public. I used to take the various pills, injections, patches, inhalers, lay them out in a rainbow or form a connect-the-dots pattern, wait for Rae to wake up and we would take them together. That was when she was little.
I’d been telling Rae that I was taking my medicine early and that now that she was growing up, she could take hers on her own. The meds would arrive by courier around 3am and I would take the package in, open it to check that at least all of her needed medications were there, reseal it, and put it in her room so it was ready for her when she woke up. Not that we went anywhere. The regular obligations: school, my PSAs and talk show spots, news segments were all attended virtually. By everyone pretty much. No one did things if they could help it. Technology meant we could keep it simple.
They paid us by supporting us. That was all which was tremendous since no one got free health care anymore, and since what happened was my fault for sleeping when I should have been on guard. You are allowed one really egregious mistake in your life, I think, and if you don’t ensure it will never, never, never happen again, then you don’t deserve another chance.
Because our mouths had smeared, melted, and now made it uncomfortable for others to talk to us, Rae and I were implanted with communication chips so we could talk in a beautiful electronic voice like the iPhone’s Siri. The administrators got tired speaking overly loudly to me when they couldn’t understand what I was saying or waiting for me to type responses even though most of our communications were limited to yes or no answers from me.
I hated the smartphone female service voice they gave me. I don’t use it with Rae. She doesn’t mind my slurred, blurred, melted speech or that it takes a long time for me to say something.
Rae’s fingers followed the swirl of one of her birthday candles. With her other hand, she pulled up her shirt and traced the burn-purple scars of dripping skin across her neck, her breasts, her stomach.
“Can I tell you my wish?” Rae said, still staring at the candle.
“If you do, it won’t come true.”
“You won’t even close your eyes.”
“Wishes aren’t real. Closing your eyes is.” I switched to the lovely female service voice.
Rae re-lit the candle and dripped hot wax onto her belly. She winced. I took the candle away and waved it out. Rae picked the hot wax off her skin, picking at the purple burn drips until she’d gauged one bloody.
“Rae, stop it!”
She frowned at me. “Why?”
Because I couldn’t bear it if you died. I remembered how the monarch butterflies had disappeared just within Rae’s childhood, that one year she and I collected the yellow and black jeweled green chrysalises and hatched them from translucent rabbit foot-shaped drops into stained glass wings of sunlit black and orange, swooping from bright green milkweed leaf to lavender and white milkweed flower balls. The next year, we went collecting the chrysalises again. This time, as the stained glass wings slept, black leaked and burned blots like black blood across the chrysalis, killing the sleeping caterpillar and the beautiful flight it would have become, and it never woke up again. Why can’t it just be okay again?
Rae had gone in her room and was face-timing Dante on her iPhone. She always uses a filter so that Dante and her classmates only ever see her as a beautiful girl. I’m sure they all use filters, too—hard to say because no one ever does anything so they don’t leave their smart phones. Dante must have used a filter. No one looks that good.
But Rae thinks she’s the only one. Since she hates to lie, I told her that it was upsetting for people to see our privilege in getting all our medical care covered. She conscientiously filters her appearance out of concern for her classmates, but most of all, for Dante. They will never meet in person, which is probably just as well. If he even is a teenager and not a pedophile. He would never be able to handle what we look like, what we live like. Since we were among a lucky few who got health care, we were a commodity, we owed it to the company who needed us to promote abiding the law through the lens of domestic abuse porn. We weren’t allowed to risk exposure so most of what we did was all virtual. No one wants the real picture except when you are very little and that is all you know. Until that birthday where a candle isn’t special anymore because you know more. Until nothing is just okay anymore.
They tended to the worst of our wounds to prevent infection, but we’re not allowed surgery to correct the corrosion left behind because we are a poverty porn message. We are a “this will never happen to you” message—that was how I saved our lives.
Rae was practicing kissing. Drool streaked the mirror. “Let’s go do something.”
“But it isn’t safe to expose ourselves.” I went to clean up her medical waste, but she’d already done it, as she had all these past few months of taking her medicine alone. I felt tired and breathless. Why can’t everything just be okay again?
“Then we’ll have to hold our breath and shut our eyes.”
I hadn’t been to the airport since Rae was little. She loved that the airport had everything: people, stores, restaurants, charging stations, showers, sleepers. That from any airport you could fly up into the sky. From under her layers of head scarf and medical mask, Rae stared wide-eyed. “I love the airport.” She spun around and stared up at the ceiling on which someone had painted a blue sky and cotton candy clouds.
An art exhibit ran down the middle of the airport’s main mall. Its theme was the apocalypse. Roberg’s The Whore of Babylon stood alongside the Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, Durer’s Four Horsemen from the Apocalypse, and Dore’s The Flood. Rae stood in front of Ernst’s Europe After The Rain.
I wrapped my head scarf more securely around my face. I could feel people wondering if I was a terrorist, a suicide bomber.
“This one is called Collective Suicide,” Rae said. “Part of it is like…a melted arm.” She took out her iPhone, clicked pictures. “I’m going to show Dante that I looked at real art with my eyes.”
“You know he can look it up online,” I said.
She stopped taking photos. “But I’m doing the seeing—that makes it different.”
Rae was hungry so we went in a restaurant. People moved away from her as she approached the counter. No one was behind the register. We waited. Waited some more. Rae sidled over to watch a young man in restaurant uniform who was helping an elderly woman in a wheelchair who couldn’t stop trembling to eat. He slowly cut up her food and fed it to her, one little bite at a time. Rae adjusted her head scarf and mask and offered to help without speaking.
Looking for somewhere that faced the restaurant, I sat down in front of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. But instead of watching Rae, I found myself gazing at the bloody stump of a neck and stump of an arm, the legs and bare bottom out straight like a cross or a doll, the absolute horror on Saturn’s face as he opened his jaws around the little body. I swallowed. Why can’t everything just be okay?
I jumped up in a panic. I was looking up, I was looking up. I hadn’t shut my eyes. But Rae was gone.
“Rae!” But it came out like a part howl, part moan. I couldn’t seem to remember how to switch on my service voice, and the strange howling moan that was me went on.
The boy who had been feeding the elderly woman was now at my elbow and helping me down a hallway to the restroom, where I found Rae, her face pressed against a glass wall.
The boy put on a uniform with multicolored glass flowers all over it, picked up a long, thin glass tube and dipped it into a clear jar of sparkling liquid. He then waved the rod very gently back and forth at a hovering little black and yellow striped ball bobbing through the air.
It was a bee.
“What is it, Muhmuh?” Rae was speaking in her real voice.
The boy smiled as though he understood her, even though I knew he couldn’t possibly.
Even though he’s not handsome, he does things, Muhmuh!
I read the sign that said it was the last bee, and gave a description of the Varroa Destructor, and finally, a gofundme site. I tried to get to the site on Rae’s iphone, but the link was no longer active. The bee lurched swerving from side to side, flying in bursts, almost like it was flinging itself. Is it real?
Yes. It’s real.
“Why’s it in there?” Rae spoke to the boy.
“To protect it from cell phone waves, neurotoxins, environment hazards.”
“Oh. They have bees in Minecraft—they’re worth a lot of points—people kill you for bees, especially if you have apiaries.”
He nodded, smiling. He came over to the glass, holding the bee on his arm.
“We have to let it go.”
I looked at her. “Let it go, Rae? Let it go where?”
“Let it go free.” She pointed up towards the ceiling. “It needs to be free—it needs to be with other bees.”
There are no other bees. “We…we have a medical apt, Rae. The bee belongs to the airport.”
Rae huffed and puffed to fog up the window of the bee’s room so she could write something, but she was out of breath, and it took her numerous tries. Free the bee, she finally wrote. The boy watched her efforts and nodded and slowly came out of the room holding the bee. It crouched on his arm.
I looked at her sinewy neck, the scars roping across her cheeks, pulling one eye half closed. And I knew she hadn’t been taking her medication either.
Do I close my eyes now or keep them open? What should I do? Because if I’d only looked up when I’d been looking down, I wouldn’t have missed the sky losing its blue as the drones covered it in shield, or the monarchs’ beautiful green sacs blasted black until they were gone, or the acid burning my baby because my husband wanted to have everything just be okay again. Do you hate me for closing my eyes that time when I should have kept them open to save you, that it’s my fault that you look like a melted candle, and that to have the medicine to live, you’ll always have to be the face of domestic abuse porn, poverty porn, sadness porn?
I didn’t take my medicine. I know they stopped giving it to you so I got rid of mine, too.
But I want you to live—I saved that medicine so that you would have it.
Apples and trees, Muhmuh, I’m your apple, you’re my tree.
I felt her warm breath on my face, and the tiny bee’s cool, fanning flight, and I saw the bee flying high above the art installation of the apocalypse.
She turned to the boy. “What’s your name?”
He was watching the bee. “Dante,” he said softly.
A huge smile tore open her mouth. She turned to me, crying. Close your eyes with me.
I closed them, and the bee flew up and up into a beautiful, brilliant, blue sky.