by Fiona J. Mackintosh
THROUGH THE NARROW window, he sees a flock of starlings wheel across the late afternoon sky. His mother sleeps, head tipped back on the pillow, mouth open. Just as he decides that it’s okay for him to leave, she squints open one red-rimmed eye.
‘I bet you wish you could push me off on an ice floe like the Eskimos do.’
Her flash of wry humour amuses him despite himself. ‘I don’t think they call themselves that anymore, Ma.’
There’s still some spirit left inside her broken body. Because she refused to work with the physios after her stroke, her legs are kinked and useless, but when the carers come to change her position in the bed, she makes them wait until she’s good and ready. She’s always insisted that others meet her every need precisely. As a captive backseat boy, he’d watched his father drive from hotel to hotel as his mother found reasons to reject them all. Even when one was deemed good enough at last, she gave the poor man the cold shoulder for getting the others wrong.
On the road home, the low sun glints on flooded fields, and he wants to jump from the car and wade in, balls deep. It’s how he always feels after visiting the care home, the urge to fling wide and run full pelt. At the house, Clare is cooking, the usual napkin-cupped tumbler beside her.
‘How was your mum?’ she asks.
‘The same. She won’t eat. The nurses can’t believe she’s still here.’
‘She always was a stubborn lady.’
Takes one to know one, he thinks, watching Clare chop vegetables and drop them in the wok.
After dinner, he opens his laptop and googles “Inuit” and “death.” From the sofa, he hears the tumble of cubes from the ice dispenser and the scrape as Clare unscrews a new vodka bottle. The cast’s just off her arm from when she fell backwards down the stairs, and he can’t help listening to her every move. On his screen, Google tells him the ice floe story is a myth. Far from being cast off by their children, the elders volunteered to be sacrificed when times were hard for the tribe. He tries to imagine that lonely drift past frozen bergs and cliffs, the cold seeping through sealskin and caribou hide. Google says that hypothermia’s not the worst way to go once your body temperature drops and the warmth and visions start. But maybe the gesture was more than their final gift to their kin. Maybe it was their own last chance for redemption.
As usual, he can’t sleep worth a damn. He could take an Ativan but hates the next day’s furry-tongued headache. Clare is snoring beside him. He wonders if there’s any room for dreams or if her sleep’s a blacked-out window with no sliver of light. As soon as his eyes close, he knows he’ll relive the arc of her fall, the outstretched arms, the slam of human bone on wooden floor. Instead, as he slips under, there’s a raft-like tilt and a chill he can feel through the skin of his skins. As the white cliffs shift and tremble and seals cry out, his mother stirs at the crunch of ice against ice, and he holds a spoon to her lips and pleads with her to eat.
Fiona J. Mackintosh is the Scottish-American author of the flash collection, The Yet Unknowing World, published byAd Hoc Fiction. She has won several flash fiction competitions and had work selected for Best Microfiction 2019, Best Small Fictions 2019, and the 2018-19 BIFFY 50. Her short stories have been finalists for the Cairde Word, Colm Toíbín, Bristol, Galley Beggar, and Exeter Short Story Prizes. Her novel Ancestral Virgins is currently out on submission.