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Short Story Contest Second-Place Winner: Eclipse

Amanda Niehaus, author of "Eclipse"
Amanda Niehaus, author of “Eclipse.”

Tess wonders what she would have to say to get her mother to sit up again, breathe deep again, smile, if such a thing were even possible at this stage. Because she hasn’t moved, hasn’t opened her eyes for four days now, and sometimes when Tess enters the living (now-dying) room she doesn’t even see her mother in the flour-white sheets, head on pillow, pale and papery, and her heart catches in her chest that she might already be gone, that it’s all happened, the end. The end being somehow fundamental between daughters and their mothers.

And yet she’d left, for a whole night.

The room smells sharp.

Like plain yogurt.

Her father’s still in the easy chair next to the hospice bed, staring at the tv, his hair an unwashed tangle. He hasn’t heard her come in.

It’s another program about the eclipse, this one about chasers, and in it, people crowd the screen, the sand. They ready themselves to stand in the moon’s shadow. The dunes look soft, like sleeping women, but the people look dry, tired. They have traveled the world to be here, this eclipse is everything to them: the passage of time, of lives, of cosmic bodies; and as the umbra sweeps across the group, a man screams, throws his hands in the air, begins to sob. He is older than either of her parents.

Tess slouches her bag onto the floor and her father swivels at the sound, gestures toward the tv.

‘I’d like to see an eclipse in Libya,’ he says. 

She shrugs. ‘Fun.’

His eyes are pink and wet, rabbit’s eyes. He turns back.

‘Not long now,’ he says.

What if she says, I did it with Jack.

Tess drifts through the house, drops onto the top step of the porch to watch Ben and the twins careen over the grass with bright, pump-action water guns that she hasn’t seen before, must be new. All three boys are soaked and laughing, and the twins’ hair glitters white in the sun. The grass is long, her father hasn’t mowed for awhile, and the moles have been at it again, splaying little mounds of dirt across the yard like buckshot. When she was little, she’d tried to catch one for a pet, but apparently—her mother had confided— the way to really catch moles was with sharp steel teeth, not cardboard and string, and so she’d never seen one.

The space between her legs is sore, wide and raw, and she would like to know if this subsides, if it’s ok to put cream there, if that even helps, but she can’t just google it, and there’s no one else to ask. She can hardly ask Tay, who’s done it plenty of times, or she’d have to tell her with who, and Tay’s been pretty clear on the rules when it comes to her big brother.

What if she says, My vagina hurts.  

Like all those times when she was little and had an itchy bottom and couldn’t get comfortable until her mother dabbed thick zinc cream on it, or when she was ten and found a blood-round tick in her underwear, or last year when she got two tampons stuck inside, or every other occasion some part of her hurt and was fixed by her mother.

Who else knows her like that? 

Not even Jack, who has now been inside her. Inside. How two bodies fit together like that.

In the kitchen, she scrapes out a bar stool, leans over the counter to pick at the edgecrisp on a tray of brownies.

‘Hey,’ says Aunt Bev, and smacks her hand. ‘Those aren’t for you.’ She’s wearing a silly yellow apron over her shorts and t-shirt so her long, veiny legs hen out the frilly bottom. Her underarms are damp, despite the aircon.

‘I’m hungry.’

‘I need you to get the boys ready.’ Aunt Bev thrusts a stack of bath towels at her. ‘Just get them dried off and I’ll put some clothes out on the table. Your dad’ll be out in a minute with the boxes.’ 

Good old Aunt Bev: prim and efficient.

Alive.

Probably immortal.

‘Go on!’ Aunt Bev shoos Tess with her hand.

Her nails are painted black.

What if she says, I hate you.

By the time Tess’s father emerges from the house, the boys are dry (if not entirely dressed) and loosely corralled on the porch. He drops an armful of cereal boxes onto the table.

‘Who wants breakfast?’ His throat makes the sound of a chuckle, and when there’s no response, he goes on. ‘Well, boys,’ he says. ‘And Tess. Today is a very special day.’

Quickly, his tone becomes professorial. Tess has seen him practice his lectures like this: the heliocentric model of Copernicus, the life of stars.

‘Do you know what a solar eclipse is?’

The boys sing noooooooo and pound and kick the table. 

‘Ok. The earth moves around the sun like this,’ he says, and picks up the cereal boxes to demonstrate planetary motion and gravity waves, and the twins are bored but Ben is with him, intent on every word, wants more, she can see it. Her father can see it. Every word about the sun and the moon is a moment Ben is right here, where truth is simple, astronomical, and the world might really be day and night simultaneously, like their mother might really just be sleeping and could wake up and wander out to them.

Her father postures. Professor of Astronomy. Stage actor, marionette.

When are you going to tell him? Tess wants to shout. She resents him for this world he builds, this fake world for Ben.

He deserves to know.

He should know, she thinks. Because everyone dies and sometimes they aren’t even that old when it happens, sometimes a person’s own body fucks itself up and bit by bit pushes the life out, and if she were really just sleeping, she’d still be in there, and she’s not.

Tess wants to shake her father.

What if she says, You’re a liar.

‘We can watch it in a box,’ he says, and sets his hand on the empty cereal boxes he’s brought to the table. ‘Then we won’t hurt our eyes.’

He hands out boxes and scissors, too small for Tess’s fingers, and stands over Ben and draws lines on the cardboard top of the box with his index finger. He tells them where to cut the flaps and the hole and where to stick the tape, and he walks among them to check on progress.

‘Why are we doing this?’ she asks, when he pauses nearby.

He looks at her, not hard or with impatience, but with sadness, and it’s worse.

‘It’s the Great American Eclipse,’ he says. ‘We can’t miss it.’ 

‘No,’ she says, hears the edge to her own voice. ‘I mean the boxes. Can’t we just uses glasses or something?’

‘He’s too young, Tess. One slip, or he takes them off, and he’ll damage his eyes.’ 

What if she says, Fuck you.

She pictures everyone in Carbondale standing in their backyards looking up at the sky, hands on hips or shielding their eyes, all of them at once, standing in the heavy, humid air, sweat bees hovering, half-eaten bowls of tomato soup on the kitchen table (no dying mothers) and little dogs yipping around bare feet, and they all look up into the sky at the dark that is not a spaceship like in the movies but the moon. The same moon as always, though now it seems different because it’s the dark side, the shadow side, the side they can never see, have never seen before.

But of course Tess won’t be looking up.

They file like ducklings into the middle of the yard and kneel in a broken circle, avoiding the dandelions, which are, she notices, precisely the colour of her box. Her father shows them how to set their boxes in the sun, out of their own shadows, and how to look through the gap in the top.

The eclipse will last, in total, two minutes and forty seconds.

‘See the dot on the bottom? That’s the sun! Just keep your eye on it, don’t look up.’

Tess watches her father and the boys push their eyes to the gap, absurd and cultish, and wonders if Jack is outside, too, wonders what he would think seeing her like this, hunched over a Cheerios box like a five-year old. It’s humiliating, she thinks, all this shit for Ben, every single fucking thing for Ben, because he’s just a kid. Better his life is fantasyland.

So she will not watch the eclipse, because she doesn’t care about the corona or million-degree gases, and because she is not-watching she sees everything: how her aunt glides across the grass, wild-eyed, and tips into her father’s ear and turns back again, and how her father stands and looks straight at her with the word

please

clear on his face, with his eyes he is saying

please, Tess, please,

and she feels the chill coming even before the sun disappears behind the moon, even before he disappears into the house, and the scratchy grass begins to darken all around her and Ben says

‘Can we look up yet?’

She pulls her phone from her pocket, because it’s twilight now—the boys’ eyes are still in their boxes and they can’t see it’s gone dim around them too, and she doesn’t want them to be afraid, so she turns on the flashlight and slips it under her shirt, and an orb of light darts through the thin black fabric, and she steps backwards,

And she says,

‘Ben! Look at me,’

she says it, loudly, her mouth choking on the words, her feet gaining speed,

‘I caught the sun.’

 

Amanda Niehaus is a biologist and writer living in Brisbane, Australia. She integrates science and nature into her work to upset assumptions about what it means to be both human and mammal. Her writing has appeared in Creative NonfictionAGNI, and NOON Annual, among others; won the 2017 VU Short Story Prize; and was selected for the 2017 Best Australian Essays anthology. She has recently finished her first novel, The Breeding Season, which examines a marriage through the lenses of art and science to understand what it is to grieve, and love, and survive.