Last week, the ginkgo tree next to our back door dropped all of its leaves and berries. A late-day sun tumbled to the ground in a million pieces stinking of your room, acrid and rotting.
“It itches,” you told me as you dug your fingers into your belly today. The cancer started in your colon. Now the tumor sat at the surface of your skin, lumping your abdomen and oozing. “I want to go outside.” The room hung with your pungent tang, not well masked with cinnamon air fresheners.
“But it’s starting to snow,” I told you. It was early this year.
“I want to hear the snow.”
I smoothed a knitted cap over your partially bald scalp. We walked outside along the back porch, you hanger-thin wrapped in a Harry Potter scarf and grey coat. The spindly trees and your papery body with almost the same silhouettes. Golden ginkgo leaves and berries in mats. Scalloped ice like your half closed eyes. Fluttering snowflakes.
“What does the snow sound like?”
You stood in the same position with your head tilted, thinking for a long time. I almost repeated my question.
“I can hear my heart in my ears and I don’ t feel sick.”
I don’t feel sick. Why wasn’t it I feel well? Did you ever forget? Did a lapse trick you temporarily?
I scraped up some leaves near the door. Something thudded in the leaf bin when I tipped it to throw the fallen ginkgo inside.
A tightly curled chipmunk rested at the bottom. The variegated swipe of symmetric stripes along its back was the only cue that it was more than just a clot of brown leaves. The color of burnt cinnamon pastry. Your hair last year in the sunlight. The smooth-sided bin doomed the animal the second it fell.
Poking it with a stick, you exclaimed “It’s alive.” It did not stir.
You picked it up like a tiny kitten and cradled it in your hands, stroking its stripes.
In one fell swoop, you pitched the chipmunk like a softball to the ground and stomped on it. Crunch. Crick. Crump. Its yellowed teeth stuck out of its now disarticulated and shattered jaw. The furry stripes tangled. Shocked, I stayed quiet. The peace of you was gone, replaced with quiet fury. Had you ever been so callous?
“It’s dead,” you declared. “Musta been for a long time. Hard like a rock.”
You scratched your belly, then your palms. “I’m burying it.”
You chipped away at the ground with your fingers. You scraped the chipmunk pieces into a shallow grave.
“I’m done,” you said as you packed the red dirt around. There was dirt under your nails, on your coat. “I heard the snow.”
“Me too,” I lied and helped you negotiate the porch stairs. We knotted our elbows together and ambled back inside. Smelling sickness with cinnamon. Mouths of tiny yellow teeth screaming. Yellow ginkgo rotting. I don’t feel sick.
Elisabeth (Lisa) Preston-Hsu is a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician in Atlanta, Georgia. Throughout her medical training and career, Lisa has dabbled in the arts with music, writing, and blogging a years-long stream-of-consciousness love letter to her family at storyofakitchen.com.
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