A Cloth House by Joseph Riippi
Joseph Riippi is the author of treesisters (2012), The Orange Suitcase (2011), and Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! (2009). He lives with his wife in New York City. Visit www.josephriippi.com for more information. A Cloth House is available from Housefire Publishing and at Amazon.
The First Time We Were Alone in a Room Together
Mother left me in your room and said, Watch the baby. She did not use your name and I called you by Baby thereafter. She never liked the name our father gave you. And there were many things you never liked, too. That year after you were born you began to almost speak in whines that were something like language, and you whined hardest at me. Almost like you wanted to talk to me. But you couldn’t use words yet, would never be able to, and it made you seem less real to me. It made me feel mean, too, which was new. I realized I could decide to be mean, to do mean things. I would say, Mommy, the baby is whining about something. And Em would say, Stop whatever it is you’re doing, then. And I would stand there and say, Stop whining, Baby, or else I’ll be mean to you. You would just look back, not understanding, whining. I never did anything meaner than calling you by Baby. I threatened, but I am not sure what it is I would have done.
Something Else About Memory
Scientists say a person remembers moments better when they hurt, when there is pain, because of the way the brain works, associatively. You remember not to touch an oven after touching it once. A dog learns not to pee in the house because its owner will scold and drag her outside by the collar. Harsh tones and dragging hurt. Our mother, Em, understood this. It’s what made her sick. She hurt me and Father and herself with hitting and cutting, tried to replace the pain of your dying with the pain of other hurts. You understand, don’t you? Your dying wasn’t your fault, but it hurt her so much. She could never forget. She couldn’t think about anything but pain and hurt, this had the opposite effect of healing.
Some Things I Remember Because They Hurt
The first rope swing, the first swing from it. I let go too late and landed on my back. When I opened my eyes, sunlight was dripping through the trees like sunrise. I heard Father come running and then saw his head appear before the glowing needles. He said, You let go too late, honey. I pointed at the way the sun came through the trees and he lay down beside me and agreed, it was beautiful. Another time I fell from the tree fort. I broke my arm. Mother had to take me to the hospital in the city for casting after Father made the splint. Another time I skinned my knee on the driveway running after the dog. Another time I burnt my hand making smores in the fireplace at Christmas. I burnt my other hand making smores in a fire at a picnic. A fire pit spark once burnt through my pant leg and into my skin. Bee stings from the flowers in the pots on the porch. Wasp nests under the eaves. Bouquets of stings, turning my skin red as some of the flowers. Rosebush thorns. Blackberry bushes. Splinters from tree climbing. Falling from tree climbing. My split lip from running alongside the pool of 1985 with the Indian boy who would die from falling. Shots in the arm at the doctor’s office. Tetanus and measles. Scratching at chickenpox. Scratching mosquito bites. Scratching the scabs that came after. Warts burnt off with nitrogen swabs. Angry pinches under the arm from Em when she was mad and sick. Angrier pinches and slaps when she grew still sicker. A softball to the face. A toe in a doorjamb. Pulling baby teeth. Trimming a toenail too tight. Biting a fingernail to the nub till bloody. Biting the inside of a cheek when experimenting with new ways of chewing. I bit my tongue doing the same. You bit me once, too. Do you remember? For you it was funny and funny is easier to forget. You dying, I remember. Learning Em had died when the sheriff drove up the drive. I am watching Father die now and I am sure I’ll remember how it is with him. There are birds crying out in love for each other along the shore, dipping after starfish and dogfish in their tidal pools, oblivious to me. I wonder if I will remember them ten years from now, if I will remember this.