My cousin carried her face tilted like a parasol, always toward the sky.
I stole the crown jewel of her collection, a huge diamante leaf that shot from my gaping sleeve into the hands of my grandmother as she undressed me. Small wonder that she caught my prize: her palms were constructed like a sieve to catch—and let fall.
A child with faces growing inside her like weeds, a woman hard to attach to any: her dead perhaps, her Chopin and Jailhouse Rock, Brother Bertie reported missing in the desert of her brow. I spent years listening out for Bertie, tuning a child’s ears to death, fearing that I too might simply pass out of existence some dark night, reported missing (in the hall) like Bertie, like Florence Nightingale before me.
I stole glances in the folder of drawings that were the only visible trace of my grandmother’s mother. A woman who died incarcerated, but not before covering sheets of foolscap with wings of lead. An old woman unable to leave life until she finally peeled herself free, parted herself from the flesh, leaving only these skeleton leaves.
The flesh of my grandmother, loosening also, that I would watch as I lay in bed and she undressed. How I liked her body. How I was repelled and comforted by it, disturbed by its capacity for pain, for blood that threatened the integrity of skin: the false teeth that she would shunt backwards and forwards in her bottom jaw like runaway carriages, the knife-edge callus on her little toe that she swore she preserved for the cutting of bread.
She promised me many things: a toe just the same, an amethyst ring when I reached sixteen, the secret of my treacherous best friend at twenty-one. None of which came to pass.
And then my grandmother on my father’s side, who set out each day with her face so thickly powdered and cushiony soft, the flesh looked like cumulus cloud: for whom it must have been a trial carrying such a face into the world, or into the house where she lived alongside the long red man who cast his intemperate shadow over her like an inflammable veil, her cornflower eyes never far from anxiety.
When she travelled in old age to Paris with her husband, she wrote to me, a child, of the silk scarf she coveted but he would not let her buy. She gave her life to him and watched it dwindle in his hands. I did not mourn her as directly as a bird that died the same year, but her humiliations were graven into me: the scarf, the way we children mocked her when she watered down the apple and orange, the way her face had grown soft, so soft and vague after so much time passed under the scrutiny of her husband—and I have felt the fledgling of her distress flapping in my windpipe.