I've got death at my fingertips. Tiny traces of the day, eager to define the way she feels about me. Perhaps she isn't even aware of the source of her discomfort around me, but I can tell it's the brittle brims, milled by my nerves, my concerns for her. But the more I worry, the more I seem to repel her. Every time I tell her to eat something she closes up a little further. I feel lost in the labyrinth of parental love. Her stare swats the same spot over and over again, almost masochistic, because the mere sight makes her shiver as if I'm tickling a chalkboard.
There's only a few folds in the sheet beneath her, as if she doesn't really touch it, but rather hovers over the mattress. As if she hovers between life and death, I can't help thinking. The thin skin has wrapped itself carefully around the sinews in her wrist. I stroke her meagreness as lightly as I can, but she shivers to my touch.
Frigid shadows from her dreams make my flesh creep. What horrors have haunted her in her sleep? And are they worse than waking up? I feel like I'm trying to read while focusing between the lines: I cannot name her demons, but their presence is undeniable. The entire room is stuffed with their proximity. We can hardly breathe. For several seconds her muscles contract uncontrolled. My darling daughter, I can't bear to see her like this, heated and freezing at the same time. The duvet, the air, even the wallpaper seems to quiver with her. I try to comfort her and hide my fingernails in her hair.
“Don't,” she snarls and jerks her head back. The way she peers at my face frightens me. Her eyes are like ice: cold, shiny, impermeable. I feel out of place, a stranger by the bedside of my very own flesh. Her feverish features look unfamiliar and pale, inanimate even. It's a trick of the light; nothing seems lively in the shimmer that seeps through the crochet curtains. She'll be all right, I tell myself. It's just an ordinary flu, she'll be all right.
Her skin is clammy and her muscles are cramped up. The top of her hip pricks through the sheet. The bone cups the hollow around her navel from one side – her hunger turned physical so that she doesn't feel it any longer. On the opposite side, it is encompassed by her rib-cage. Her ribs point upwards proudly, every one of them seems to shout at me that she really doesn't need to eat. I try to pull the duvet a little further over her shoulders. The gristle in my knuckles cracks.
“Don't,” she says again. Her voice is weaker now, less aggressive, but still morose and unwilling. I feel restless. I need to do something to alleviate her aches, but how can I, if she doesn't let me? I follow her glacial glance, it is fixed on my hands again. I'm very aware of the state they are in, idle and grimy. Soil of some sort has swaddled itself in the trenches of my extremities – as if I've been digging a grave with my bare hands. Now, even my own eyes cannot escape from these black holes, stretched out and curved around the interface of flesh and nail.
“You disgust me,” she seems to think, but she says nothing. Instead, she turns on her other side and leaves me staring at the back of her head. Her hair sprawls out on the pillow, the fresh smell of shampoo chases away her bad dreams. She's young, she's clean, she's sleepy. She's everything I am not. She's ill. I wish I could just give her my health, like an extra blanket. I wish I could offer her my appetite instead of a meal that she'll refuse. A strand of hair sinks into my grimy grip. I rub it between my fingers. It's soft and silky, as I imagine her skin must be.
“Don't,” she sighs again. She's right. Who am I, to think I can besmear her with these gross greasy grapnels?
“Sorry.” The word escapes from my lips with a sigh. It's hardly audible, just an articulated breeze.
With two fingers I pull a splinter from her headboard. Two black smiles straddle the piece of wood and bring the sharp side to one of the soiled cracks on my other hand. I press the head down in the dirt, swing it swiftly from one corner to the other and brush the living pleat clean. A teeny-weeny victory, no need to cheer or celebrate – a victory nevertheless, with the appropriate amount of exaltation. Encouraged by the result I quickly wipe all neighbours, like a nurse wiping baby buttocks in a day-nursery.
When there's no darkness left, I look back at my heavily breathing baby girl. What had I expected? Did I really think I could wipe away what aggravated her? She's as distant as she was: I cannot reach her, cannot help her. I still have death at my fingertips: the mourning-borders made way for ten whited sepulchres.