A Patch of Sun
I took a carrot. No one was watching me. Nobody in the kitchen that afternoon. I simply opened a bin in the refrigerator and it was there, wrinkled, like an old finger gone crooked. Carrot like a sunburned finger that belonged on a field worker, its outer skin wearing dirt in its folds. It pointed at me and I lifted it out, in part because my body longed for it, in part because it was what I allowed. Cake was in there. Slivers of cold meat on a dish. And cheese. But I could never….
You were in a black recliner in the den where Mom placed you, a chair made for fathers—official and large. You would have sat all day if we let you. The television held your attention, except you would join the plot. It was always like that. Sometimes you were a player in a baseball game, or a spectator in the crowded stadium yelling yo! yo! yo! Or a character in a soap opera. There were programs we avoided because of the dark content. It might take awhile to return to yourself, or some semblance of the father I once knew and loved.
When I took this carrot I did not peel it. I washed it using hot water from the faucet. It turned bright and warm. I’m not sure where Mom was at that moment. But I am sure of the craving I gave into, snatching it with the urge of a thief, a rush of fear coursing through—like it was something not allowed when, in fact, there was talk of forcing me to eat, of my food being monitored. After washing the unlawful thing, I hid this carrot in my bulky sweater and snuck past you, to the attic bedroom where I stood directly above your strangeness below. I ate like somebody given into hunger, suddenly ravenous, then huddled against the heater mounted to the wall, in this low room that was my own. As no one saw me, no one caught my worriment after. How my body contorted into regret, as if betrayal could buckle into a shameful shape. How my mouth locked up, my lips formed a tight line having turned themselves in.
I was fourteen then. Agile, tall, my limbs lithe. You had come home from the hospital with brain damage after heart surgery, and not long after, early autumn, thoughts of dieting began. They came with such force, my body was being altered by my mind. It was an awful state that arose of its own accord but was certainly linked to losing you. By December, the seventh month into your dementia, I lost all clear-seeing of myself.
The day of the carrot, I took off my sweater and pants. A ray of winter sun came through the window at an angle. It touched my frail form. A wooden door divided the attic into sections—one being my bedroom, the other a library with built-in bookcases of knotty pine. This door had a full-length mirror that I stood before, in my underclothes. Then turned sideways to inspect my stomach, sensing its flat shape had risen into a soft hill of flesh. I even pressed my palm against where it seemingly swelled but could not get rid of the look. My body looked blown as if injected with air. I saw it as so. That she was me and I, her. That we were fat.
My legs belonged to another language. Had I seen clearly, I might have found words for their diminished shape. Stilts, I might have said. Spindly, I may have called them. Brittle-boned. Twigs. Phrases like too weak to move. Or hardly moving. Motionless, at times. Although there was a moment when my legs pressed together that I stood aware of a gap between my thighs, an oval space that made my legs bowed. As in an old black-and-white photograph I now have of a boy in the Russian Gulag who had rickets. Like skeletal images from Auschwitz, where legs look like walking sticks joined at the hips. Maybe when legs have nothing to walk toward, they stop working. Maybe the look of one’s suffering is not for the reasons we think.
After that day with the carrot, I must say I rarely ate. I must say of winter, nothing could warm. Even the sun dropping in sent cold light to the room. Frost held to the outer pane of the window—which was just as well, as I stopped looking out. I dwindled to where my body began eating my body, which is to say I was headed toward leaving life rather than living it. Time slowed, but the days had not quite stilled.
Your world formed a different story, although it is fair to say we both lost sight of life on Earth. You woke with differing dispositions, varied personalities, shades of yourself that shifted time. Even without a ballgame on television you might yell yo! You could yell Help me, help! while Mom showered you, and you were not in any way being harmed.
Into the winter I thinned. Cold as I was, I endured. But unlike you, my mind never suffered out loud. Instead, my body was a form of speech, giving shape to what couldn’t be said. My face a statement: cheeks drawn in, the eyes looking starved. Even my arms were a loud telling feature, reduced to the size of cardboard tubes inside rolls of paper towels. The skin graying into that sickly shade. I know this now. The health gone down. The body of bones, hidden in clothes. It is all true.
During our years on Mount Vernon Aunt Jean and Uncle Al lived across the street. They weren’t relatives, but close enough that I addressed them in this affectionate way. Mom and Aunt Jean were paisano—an Italian term meaning their families came from the same place in Italy. Theirs was a southern village known as Salandra, a lone hill surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, grapes that their grandparents, greats- and great-greats- squashed into liquid wine. Both were born in America, and had been childhood friends in the same town.
The day they held hands on the front step of our house you were inside moving about in a delusion for what seemed a long time yelling yo! That very word for an hour before Mom called Jean, her voice overwhelmed. I watched from a window, how they braved what occurred. How tears came to Jean’s cheeks. How the two sat in silence, their very heritage at work—as in the way of old Salandra, where women were expected to remain loyal. Although Jean entered our house every so often trying to quiet you. Although whatever you believed yourself to be, continued for some time.
I came to you once and said something like Don’t say that, Dad. I was asking you to stop yelling like Aunt Jean had asked, only this time your face formed a dreadful look. Your eyes flashed a foreign soul behind them—the glare, a dangerous energy. Like spears that pierced without touching, aimed fiercely for my heart. And the heart circulated this very hurt throughout my failing body, throughout every blue vein and back through, like blood. Dad, stop. And you wouldn’t, and, wounded, I backed away.
I did this like clockwork after school: put a kettle on the stove, set the knob to high, place my hands above the electric burner whose rings gave off orange light. Like sunrise, the slow coming of sun, although this too is illusory. Something people agree upon, everywhere, across the globe. When actually it is Earth that turns toward and away from this burning star. Earth-rise should really be the name for this faithful occurrence. Earth-set could be the word for day’s end.
As water heated in the stainless-steel kettle, it rocked, causing a sound like someone tapping on tin. On the counter, canisters of milk glass were such a white color, each wearing a raised image of clustered grapes. In the smallest were tea bags, and I set one in a china cup. While pouring, the hot water turned a tannic color. I held a tag that read Tetley, bobbing the string like fishing line. I remember. Some of the loose tea settled to look like a lake bottom. Before that, though, before you and I fell ill, I made white tea, of honey and milk.
Even the well-minded have illusions. No one escapes them on Earth. For example, when we think of night coming on, we see it as falling. Nightfall, we say, while the sky darkens and the sun inches down to sleep. Likewise, we know sun-up as the ancient star waking over the rim of the world. Hoisting itself. Clothed in instant golden-wear once in full view.
I do not know when I first gave in to the faulty perception I was fat. Just as I cannot name the first day grief turned to calorie counting. What I can claim is how I avoided food, sneaking it into the trash or the woods. And while your behavior was alarming, I was raised to forgive because, well, whatever you did wasn’t you. Forming a precarious compassion, I kept seeing things I could not say; I kept not saying until it became important not to talk. By the end of February, my mind was misleading me. Whatever the brain focused on would happen. Through starving, I was learning about the power of thoughts.
March, the month of, I could will a certain place of the body to thin and it would. If I had a tea after school, the color was clear. There might be calories if I added a Tetley bag, I reasoned. What the mind allowed was not much. Not a fleeting thought of your appearance. Not even my eyes would see—the more I lost, the more I lost sight of what you looked like. It became important to.
I carried a china cup to the attic. Once there, I sipped some clear tea. Nothing but hot water, my face in its misty breath. Fingers folded around the cup to keep warm. Hunkered by a heater, I don’t believe I knew the passage of time or had any awareness beyond this mere need.
We humans share a reality as well as cultivate individual perceptions. For example, we see the chair, the desk, the water and sky. Yet some of these nouns are hallucinatory. I call them group illusions. Take the trick of sea and sky, for instance, and how their color is certain—a blue bright enough to deem real. Cup the sea though, and you find it clear. Set off in a plane. Soar through a colorless atmosphere. Maybe it is the way the mind is put together that makes a thing feasible. Enough that the blue we believe in becomes commonplace. It happens in a desert as well, while walking toward something enticing. There, a pool of water! the walker keeps thinking. The journey becomes more about walking toward a perception, survival by concentration. Inch by inch, step by step.
Inch by inch, pound by pound, I endured the last days of March, of winter. I became like that desert walker under the brutal sun, who believes he’s nearing the very blue that will quench his thirst. Walking with burnt feet, parched lips. Whatever he saw, his hands were out to it. He would die for it even. Same as my own delusion, dying from a persistent need to starve.
In April, I had some clarity. It happened after a dinner I was forced to eat, that I retrieved a scale from the linen closet. That number was proof my brain had me fooled. Strange how certain objects pointed toward my being emaciated yet others, like an attic mirror, showed me as large. A notion occurred that I must be thin because there were other items that informed me. Sagging sweaters, the holes I poked in belts to hold up my pants. Like the desert walker who believes in shimmering waters, then suddenly sees what he’s been walking toward. Miles, miles of dry sand, nothing else.
We had a neighbor, Jean—not Aunt Jean across the street, but another Jean. I was raised to call her Miss Jean because she said it seemed friendlier that way. And so I did it that way, omitted her surname as she asked me to do. Her house was behind ours with so little yard that our Cape Cods seemed fastened together, zippered by a metal fence that let noise through. Mom worried about Miss Jean overhearing things for two reasons: one being your terrible sounds, the other I now know as family pride. As a married couple, you and Mom were known to be close. As an individual, you were a loving husband and father. With the coming of spring, our windows finally up, there was worry over the help me, help! like we were hurting you, when no one was.
As the weather warmed, the sun opened the shape of me. I wore less. Daylight exposed the first flowers. Crocuses pushed through the thawing earth. Other low flowers outlined the dirt beds. Later, the sun would arrow on daffodils and higher flowers would bloom. Purple irises. Snapdragons I could pinch open their colorful mouths. I might even lie on the lawn beside them, I thought. I thought of watching the sun’s shine, allowing its golden look to glare down at me.
The tragic part about an illusion is its absolute strength. If the person’s lucky, he or she will have a confrontation, where the mind and body just don’t add up. It happened with the scale. In April, I had a second realization that the girl in the mirror was false. My eyes and hers stared at each other to figure out truth, which one was real.
Every desert has danger. There is risk in setting off with nothing for miles; just maybe skulls of animals that also walked long without food or the occasional shadow of eerie creatures crouched behind rocks. Once starting out, turning back feels just as risky. Devoted to dieting, I couldn’t turn back. The body kept vanishing into its own self-created extreme, wasting away.
Our species has a mutual system for communicating, although locations lend themselves to different sounds. No matter, within each sound system, certain words are abstractions. The English words love and grief are nouns we cannot touch but deeply feel. Cannot clutch them like stones, yet they do their invisible work. Sometimes an event concretizes an abstract, lifting it up into a three-dimensional form.
The day a noun shed its abstraction, my mother leaned over the metal railing in our yard. Sensing your loud words reached Miss Jean, Mom stepped from our house and called to her neighbor, the language of her body wearing shame and strength at the same time. I could see her verbal stance at the metal dividing line, her shoulders pinched back while her hands clutched the top rail for support. I saw only her back, but sensed her face. Same as I knew what she was saying, though she spoke quite low. I then realized how honesty pries open a person to expose an awkward truth. I saw how it worked by Miss Jean kindly nodding, as if she understood but was sorry to have been told. This was grace. Grace was a fence and my mother facing someone on the other side of it. Shattered, but sharing what seemed beyond language, a few words of you.
I will share something briefly. I couldn’t get well. My body was so malnourished it nibbled on itself, chewed the bones in me, I imagine. This is what I discovered; it would take a miracle to survive.
Of the desert walker who is faltering, his own reflection would frighten him. Say, if he happened upon glassy water and peered in. It was like that in the attic. The mirror turned honest at last. The girl in the mirror looked like me, the thin one. From there I started to notice other things the spring sun pointed out.
Even though I no longer wanted to lose weight, just by moving across a room, exerting the slightest energy, it could happen. It was then frightening to realize wellness would be hard won. Like that journeyman with his feet scorched, practically on fire—who met up with and surpassed his mirage—he had to overcome each delusion until he came upon some softer sand. And then he walked and he walked out, knowing this very act as the part of life that was most real.
Eating again, I was also feeding my eyes. Reason slowly returned. The world then gave of itself. From the attic window, I noticed where a ray of light pooled in the side yard. Once leveled by illness, suffering can reverse a person to where the tiniest acts turn notable: waves of grass, the zipping about of a bee—I did not feel larger than these. In size, but not in significance. Not in strength, not in deliberateness to survive.
From there I sensed how every single thing was held tightly together by the sun’s great pull. Like dots fastened to the vast Earth, we encircled this great old fire, as if on a carousel with other planets, a nonstop ride with nothing to cling to in space. That we were not the center, that the sun was, seemed important. And that to live in the world was to live in relationship with all life. As if the sun could internally light me, my mind was shown these intricate things.
It was June when the ground seemed warm enough that I wanted to go out. I wasn’t quite human-looking. And still had days when my body felt immense. When these notions arose I pushed them down into some fold of the brain so they couldn’t resurface. They wouldn’t dare! I kept telling myself, not if I used the same diligence that had me starve. Diligence was another abstract noun, but I got to choose which way it worked.
The secret to healing was to keep going and not by any large measure. To eat small amounts and watch how the small world worked. To sense the lawn’s aliveness: the delicate kingdoms of stone, of plant, of animal.
That day I left the attic, I moved from what seemed a long stretch of time alone. I removed my pajamas, slipped into a light-cotton shirt and pair of shorts. The shirt had a dainty print with sleeves that puffed over my shoulders like giant parachutes. Down from them, my arms hung like attached chords. Once over my head, the shirt became blousy enough to catch my breath, its slight rise and fall. You could make out my ribcage beneath a veil of flesh. My shorts were pinned. I want no words for my legs.
By chance, Mom’s sister and her husband walked through our front door just as I came into view, exposed in these summer clothes. I caught how my aunt’s eyes held me painfully. I knew my place in her silent look, as much as you were a mute issue. After all, it was the 1970s and anorexia was unknown. The word Alzheimer’s had not been given to the world. I wanted to move past their stares and my mother’s flitting glances from me to her sister, and carry on, beyond a sickness that had no easy solution, but I could not.
What’s wrong? asked my aunt. My God, my uncle said under his breath. I heard that too. It was a quiet admittance, but I meant every word when I answered, I’m so thin. As if by owning my looks I could own my day, continue to stand before them. But as my aunt and I had come this far in sharing, she dared something more. You’ll get better, she finally said, and the words held. Enough to have me move out the door, across the lawn, barefoot into the side yard, the green there. Into a day that held reasoning; it had my own few words. It carried a spoken emotion of the way I looked. The day had life on Earth. It had the sunlight the Earth had turned me toward. It had a patch of sun on the ground that I could lie in. And did.
Above, the great star shone. More than anything I wanted its warmth to come over me. I wanted it to hold me alive on the spiraling earth. The sun that day, I’ll tell you. As if it knew, it sent its good light down. I could feel it through my thin clothes and flesh, this living brightness, beaming inside.
The term body electric catapults me to think of the body as a conductor, a form of expression, which transfers much without using words; likewise I also think of the physical body as a live sensor, capable of perceiving the obvious and the subliminal.
“A Patch of Sun” first appeared in Tampa Review, vol. 46, No. 45, 2013. Therése Halscheid is the author of Frozen Latitudes (Press 53, 2014). Her other collections are Uncommon Geography, Without Home, and Powertalk. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Natural Bridge, Sou’wester, and Tampa Review. A recipient of fellowships from NJ State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine Dodge Foundation, she teaches for Atlantic Cape Community College in NJ, visits schools, and has taught in unusual locales such as an Eskimo village in northern Alaska, and the Ural Mountains of Russia. She has been an itinerant writer by way of house-sitting for several years. Her photography has appeared in juried shows and chronicles her nomadic lifestyle.