When I wake to find my left ear missing, Mother tells me not to worry.
“I’ll sew you a new one,” she mimes, hands imitating a needle and thread.
I shrug. I don’t mind losing another ear. All I need is a good eye and a steady hand to hold my paintbrush. I’ve survived three years of the pestilence with both intact.
Everyone in my family has lost something to the plague. My brother Jaxi’s thumb fell off as he lifted a box of onions over his shoulder. Stepping out of the bath, Mother looked down to see her little toe had chipped off in the tub. The worst was Father, who wiped his face as he came in from the fields, only to find his nose in his handkerchief. Mother sewed a quilted cover to hide the hole where his nose used to be. Most afternoons he sits at a window, watching the pilgrims on the road by our cottage.
“Why do those fools keep trekking up to the saint’s shrine?” Father mutters when his mood floods him with darkness. “That water isn’t holy. Won’t cure a thing.”
Mother rubs his shoulder as she walks by to hang clothes on the line. “Maybe belief is their cure,” she murmurs.
“There is no cure,” he scoffs, and off they go on their daily battle between hope and despair.
This morning I’m grateful for silence. What do they say about losing one sense? The other senses grow sharper, eager to guide you through the world. Maybe now my eyes will hear what the canvas has been trying to tell me for months.
But Mother has already shaped two makeshift ears – the left formed out of the round toe of her old clog, the right a heel from one of Father’s worn out boots. She holds out the curved pieces of leather as if they are priceless jewels, her face beaming with pride. I sit still while Mother sews the leather flaps to my head. The sharp pain as the needle pierces my skin becomes a tickle each time the thick thread runs beneath the surface. I giggle as tears fill my eyes.
When the last stitch is complete, I retreat to my room. I line up my paint jars, waiting. Each time I raise my brush, I hesitate.
My right ear holds Father’s angry “Why even bother. No one is going to see your work.” crowding out Mother’s soft question from the left – “What beautiful world will you paint this time?”
I turn around, expecting to see Mother and Father behind me. No one. Frowning, I lean toward the canvas.
Dipping my brush, I hear “Who cares? Within a year the whole village will be gone.”
From my left comes the response, “We’ll be fine.” Mother’s voice is matter-of-fact.
“Face reality.” I picture Father at the window, shaking his head at the believers trudging up the narrow path to the mountain shrine.
“We’ve managed before.”
“There’s your dangerous optimism again.” Father’s voice booms in my right ear.
Mother sighs, tickling my left ear, before answering, “We have to try,” her voice trailing off.
I cup my hands over both ears. Instead of muffling the voices, my hands amplify them.
“Stop.” I call out, pulling the ears off, wincing in pain. I hurl the bloody leather flaps to the floor in anger and relief.
My head throbs, but at last I sit in silence. I turn to my canvas, brush in hand. Without thinking, I draw a horizontal line, broken by vertical slashes. I don’t know where these lines will take me, but for once, I don’t care. I paint circles and squares, winding paths and floating bridges. When my brush runs out of color, I place a finger on the canvas, smearing the wet paint upwards and out in trembling curves that double back to new starting points. Leaning back, I study the canvas. With the tip of a cloth, I remove slivers from every line to show what is missing, like seeds dropped by birds on their way to the sea.
Phebe Jewell’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in “Monkeybicycle,” “Spelk,” “New Flash Fiction Review,” “Ellipsis,” “Maudlin House,” “The Cabinet of Heed,” “Crack the Spine,” “The Citron Review,” and other publications. She lives in the Pacific Northwest where she teaches college and volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison.
Read more of her work at http://phebejewellwrites.com.
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