The Clouds of Mt. Sinai

The Mt. Sinai Hospital was neolithic on the black hill of Hollow, New Hampshire. Winter dampened the trees and the wind bit at the sparse branches, the sidewalks and stairs were perilous with soggy leaves, and the dim yellow light cast a pallor upon the milky stone building.

Ambling inside the halls of determined walks and brisk marches, was a woman of twenty, jeans and dark hoodie, armlets of cord and band, swatched and tangled to her elbows. Her hair was an oily brown and cut into sharp hackles, angled each way. She wore the grim look of a teen approximating the seething loss of adulthood and a ring in the center of her lower lip.

“I’m so lost,” Mara Mason said to the receptionist.

The woman looked up, but kept her fingers in the ribs of the papers she searched. “Who you looking for, ma’am?”

Mimi Mason, her grandmother, had begun the snowy trek into death. Heart trouble was the report a month ago when things began to look bleak. Another event had left her inert in Mt. Sinai and the family scrambling to send a representative to shepherd her to the life after.

“You mean the ‘afterlife,’” she’d said when her father asked her to go.

“What’s the difference?”

“We know there’s an ‘after’ after life, but not a ‘life’ after life.” Her father was too busy for her ‘metaphysics of angst.’ He was too busy getting blandly rich. Her mother too fragile. Her uncle was also unavailable to sit with an old woman of declining health. Her aunt was too motherly and their children much too schooled to be able to take the time for an event that could happen within the next three to six months.

The nurse led Mara to her grandmother’s room. Her left arm itched and the cold had made her face chap and peel. Her body felt threshed, her chaff and ashes winddriven.

Mara worked at minimum wage and was promised six months rent to take up the post on behalf of the family. She was to call the moment Mimi’s death seemed imminent. Arrangements had been made at the hotel across the street for her and she’d slung three fat books into her bag before she left.

“I’m Mara, Gerry’s daughter. Gerry your son. He isn’t here,” she said for the third time and went ahead and added, “Eli isn’t here either.”

Mimi seemed wispy, as wispy as her silver ruching of hair, more cirrus than cumulus. She was trussed up in blankets and medical tubing. Still, her blue eyes were prone to drift upward as if searching for some place to rise.

When she entered, gramma Mimi smiled, but it had been eight years, haircuts ago, blemishes, braces and months of cynicism, lies, and a gouged-out fragility since they’d seen each other. Mara wasn’t recognized as anyone other than a child of Adam, but was greeted with matriarchal warmness.

Mimi wore a thick woven sweater, which matched the rosacea of her cheeks, and she straightened the leather buttons as if arranging baked goods on a plate.

They spoke briefly, and then briefly, and then briefly again. Mimi’s mind was a wilderness of no landmarks. A wandering would occur at every bend of conversation, recursive, repetitive, full of lost names and places.

Mara read for two weeks, her feet on the bed rails, she smoked outside, she ate in the cafeteria three times a day, she wandered the halls waiting for Mimi to wake and speak or decline so far into sleep that she would never rise again.

“What’s that in your lip, sweetie?”

Mara pooched out her lower lip to make the ring more prominent. “It’s a piercing, gramma.”

“It’s pretty.” She’d say it everyday.

Nightly, outside in an architectural cleft preserved from the bitter wind, she would smoke with a sullen janitor named Aaron. He’d kick up the mulch, deliver the gossip of the day and make broad pronouncements about books and music.

“Read any Pynchon?”

“Just Gravity’s Rainbow,” she said meekly.

Aaron bent at the waist and spit between his legs. “That book literally made me sick.”

Mara laughed. She put the cigarette to her lips. The red ember flashed and the arm of the tobacco reached inside her and rustled her lungs.

“Ever have sex?” He asked and angled the brim of his winter cap to hide his eyes.

Mara held the smoke inside her and nodded. “I’m not as young as you think.”

Aaron bopped his head approvingly. “Just wondering.” He dug his tongue into his lower lip. Then asked, “Got any tats?”

She pulled back her right coat sleeve to reveal her forearm. The light above the exit illuminated their hollow enough to see the Caduceus in blacks and blues on her arm. She held it out to Aaron.

Still holding his cigarette, he traced with his middle finger the serpents twining the winged staff.

“Awesome,” was all he said before he began contorting and disrobing himself enough to show off his own ink. Sloughing off his coat and lifting and stretching his shirt and pant legs, he stacked himself head to toe on the altar of her attention.

Mara asked about the raven of his shoulder and the claws of fire digging into his back, the dagger over his heart and the circle of red around his wrist, the serpent on his leg and the blank box like a thrown die above his ankle, but he talked about movies and his favorite bands, of friends and wild nights.

Mara let her eyes glaze over, letting his voice fade to a dull murmur. His time in her presence was measured in centimeters of tobacco. She pulled her sleeve down and jostled the bracelets to her wrist, locking her symbol away. The pillar of smoke in her lungs was released and caught fire in the light overhanging the door.

It was Sunday. Her grandmother had slept it half away. She stirred when Mara entered. “Hello, young lady,” she said.

“I’m Mara, your granddaughter.” She went over to a bag of cosmetics and withdrew a pear-shaped crystal bottle. “Would you like your perfume?”

“Is it the Lord’s day?”

“Yes, gramma.”

Her grandmother extended her hands out, palms up like she was being handcuffed. Mara spritzed each wrist and they each inhaled. The scent of wood and spice was carried about the room.

“You have to smell good for the Lord,” she said to Mara.

She said this every time and every Sunday when they visited growing up. She’d share her scent with Mara. They smelled nice for the Lord together.

“When I can no longer go the church,” Gramma Mimi said to her father one Christmas. “Make sure you give me my Sunday perfume. Someday I might not know who I am or where I am, but if you give me my smells, I’ll know what I am.”

Her father bought the perfume for gramma every birthday. By year’s end, it would only be half gone, but he would replace it anyway. It was unknown what she did with the remainder.

Mimi smelled her wrists and laid back on the bed. “Thank you, young lady, that’s all.”

 

Mara sat before an untouched ham sandwich. She pressed a potato chip until it snapped in half. She continued to halve it until it was dust.

“Tell me when she’s circling the drain,” her father had said.

“Until, what?”

“You know, when it’s close to the end.”

“Daddy, it’s close to the end. She mostly sleeps. She doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know me. She doesn’t remember anything.”

“But tell me when the doctor’s say it’s close.”

She allowed him to conclude the phone call without another word. Her time here had stopped being measured in hours. Soon the days would cease to be counted and her time would only add up to weeks.

She had stopped reading, encountering an impossible Russian novel named Oblomov. She slept when her grandmother slept, waking and hovering over her when she woke and inhabited life for a few disjointed moments.

The cafeteria was empty and newly remodeled to look like a mall food court. The offerings were prepackaged, splayed out under cellophane. The tables had a dark wood veneer set atop faux brick tiles. Mara sat beneath the light of a streetlamp-styled column and prayed.

Help it to end soon. Help it to be painless. Help me not to lose my mind when I’m old. Help her. Please. Please help. Please help me. She blinked her eyes clear of tears and pushed the food away.

Mara peeled a shoestring scab from her left forearm. She bore a ladder of lateral strikes with only a few crosshatchings. She cut herself sometimes. It started as an accident.

A nurse entered wearing blue scrubs, wide and worn. She plucked a yogurt from a kiosk, sliding her ID badge beneath a scanner to pay, and looked for a place to sit. Mara waved her over.

Zoe was one of Mimi’s nurses. They passed stilted hellos to each other when they met in the halls and brief updates in hushed tones. Zoe sat down across from her.

Mara tugged her sleeve down and rattled her armlets in place. She hid her eyes from the nurse and folded the napkin over her discarded scabs.

“This is a stressful time, Mara.”

Marra nodded, but kept her eyes down.

“You don’t need to punish yourself.”

Mara flicked a look at the fatigued nurse. “These are old. Haven’t done it since I’ve been here.”

Zoe nodded. “I’m sorry, I’m smacked tired. I don’t have the energy. Just let me know if you need help?”

Mara cleaned one fingernail with another. “Noceo ergo sum.”

Zoe pulled the lid off her yogurt. “I’m coming off a twelve hour shift. What’s that mean?”

“It means… ‘I’m fine.’”

“Wait, what is it again?”

Mara tugged her shirt down to reveal the tattoo beneath her clavicle.

The older woman read the gothic script. She seemed to chew the inside of her mouth. “I went to medschool, you know. Primum non nocere, first do no harm.”

Mara shrugged.

Zoe continued. “So that means, you hurtin’, you livin’? Something like that?”

“That’s right.” Mara’s lip quivered.

“Well, I hear that, to be honest.” Zoe stabbed her yogurt with a plastic spoon and churned it. “I’m too tired to eat this.”

“Me too. I only got this sandwich so I could crunch up the potato chips into crumbs.”

“Yeah?” Zoe perused the destruction on her plate. “That make you feel better?”

Mara nodded.

“So you ain’t gonna eat that sandwich?”

Mara slid it toward the nurse. “No, haven’t touched it.”

“It’s starting to look good to me.” Zoe took up the sandwich and unwrapped it from its cellophane.

For a moment, when she held it up, it seemed so strange a thing. Bread and animal, made one. Mara was still repulsed by the idea of sustenance, but she saw the new-flamed hunger in Zoe’s eyes.

“Lord,” Zoe said. “I didn’t know how bad I needed this.”

 

Later, Mara plucked at her lip, her labret ring providing a simple handle. Her hand formed words with her mouth in silence. A fishlike pleading.

The night was deep and snow was burgeoning, but the room was stifling hot. Mara had removed her layers, wearing only a sleeveless tee and jeans. On her right arm was Health and on her left was Harm. Sitting across from her grandmother, she felt that she could stretch out one hand and send her one direction or another.

“Young lady, would you feed me the word?”

Mara —startled— slapped her feet on the ground and stood. Her grandmother gazed at her with glassy eyes and a peaceful smile. “Are you hungry, gramma?” She reached for the red jello cup at the bedside table.

“No, sweetie, the word.”

The Bible was cracked and crimson with gilded pages and little tags to note where the different books began. It smelled of spices and wood. The cigarette paper was fuzzy in the middle where a thumb would touch to turn it over.

Mara read and had read her great chunks of the Bible, mostly from the Old Testament. Bushes talked, men touched gold and died, the world was covered in water. The New Testament wasn’t quite so strange, talk with some miracles thrown in to keep the reader going. Her grandmother didn’t mind what was read and didn’t notice when she changed the names.

“This is the land of which I swore to Dory, to Dilbert, and to Jimminy, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”

Mara had to introduce herself every day. Twice a day. Every time she entered the room and her grandmother was awake. I’m Mara. I’m Marilynn. I’m Bernadette. I’m the lord thy god that brought thee out of Egypt.

She would skip ahead, read backwards in the narrative, start in Jerusalem and end up in Eden.  “No, gramma, Geri isn’t here,” she would have to say if she read from the Nativity account. “Neither is Eli.” She didn’t have the heart to tell her that they were too busy to come, so she told her that they were coming.

Mara paused for too long. Searching for something else to read. Esther was read yesterday, Ruth was on Friday. Mimi decided to speak. “How are you today?”

It was a question that Mara was used to, a question she lived between, from her boss, her roommate, her mother on the phone, the mailman on her stoop, but it was disorienting that someone on the verge of death would ask that of another.

She read a Psalm instead of answering. “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them.” Her grandmother nodded and laid back, closing her eyes.

Her breathing was bad and getting worse. She was hooked up to a ventilator and medicated. Two days later, Mara was on the phone telling her father it was time to come. “It will be a matter of hours now,” the doctor had said.

“We’re coming,” her father responded.

 

It was an hour’s drive from the airport to Mt. Sinai Hospital. Her family would arrive by noon, Uncle Eli and his kids would be in later. Mara wept.

In the bathroom, her feet propped against the door, she held her visitor’s badge against her left forearm, the sharp plastic edge pressing into her thatched skin. She closed her eyes and imagined the thin separation, the red slit, the warm flow.

She felt the vibration of her phone in her pocket. She unfolded herself and withdrew it. “Where are you? Are you here?”

“Hey, sweetie.” It was her mother’s voice, dulled and pleasant. “We’re having trouble with the our luggage. They haven’t unloaded it from the plane yet. They’re not even sure it’s here.”

Mara shot upright. “You’re still at the airport? Why? Why? Just leave! Who cares about your luggage? Gramma’s dying!”

“I know, we’re hurrying. Just wanted to give you an update.”

“Just get in the car! You don’t know what’s happening!” Mara knelt down before the doorjamb, she cupped her hand over her mouth to breathe or not breathe, to hide her life from the phone.

“So we’ll be there soon. Gramma will be fine.”

Mara dropped the phone. Sometimes it’s for pain. She took off a brass cufflet, sharpened on one edge. Sometimes it’s for numbness. She closed her eyes and put its edge against her arm. Sometimes it’s for anxiety. She pressed it into the weak flesh. For a rift. For an aperture. Sometimes it’s for desperation. For a debt. For a ransom. Sometimes it’s for sorrow, sometimes for anger.

When she returned to her grandmother’s room, Mimi’s eyes were open and her hands were on the Bible. She had torn off a wing of paper and was trying to stuff it into her mouth. The endotracheal tube blocked her and the shred of Bible fell down her cheek. She tore another piece and her eyes closed. She raised her hand to Mara. It wavered, so Mara caught it in both her hands.

It was as if she were being offered food. There was a ringing in her ears. Mara bent and accepted the paper with her lips. She held onto her grandmother’s hand as the room was filled with nurses. There was a bustling.

A flow of blood was dried on one arm and an angel was on the other. Mara stepped back and away from the hospital bed. The sun had brighted out the room. Mara was blinded by a scree of tears.

The world outside stalled. The blue sky paused. The winter washed trees were crooked as if to listen for the birth of wind. The stones of Mt. Sinai Hospital held the light of the noontide day as if anointed. And Miriam Mason breathed her last.

When Mara left the room, her face shined and she held a bottle of perfume in her hands. The faces of the hospital staff blessed her as she passed. She approached a dark hall where the exit was found. The red sign bathed the door in a dim chrismation of light.

Walking outside, she felt the burning on her arm and remembered her wound. Sometimes it was for purity. Mara pulled her coat tight, still smelling of wood and spices.

Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana and the author of two middle grade novels, Strays (Canon Press, 2017) and Hush-Hush (forthcoming).