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It’s not that I didn’t try to help. When Annemarie flailed, sleeping, I was the one who always shook her until she sat up, sheet-tangled, still half-caught in her dream. I’d kiss her fists, the knuckles damp, electric. What’s wrong? I’d ask, already exhausted, knowing what she’d say: that she’d seen her dead mother again. The woman dug her way out of her grave and materialized at our door, dirt-streaked, alive again—she roped herself on top of her daughter’s body, exhaling months-old rot into Annemarie’s mouth—axe in hand, her mother pushed into our living room, telling Annemarie to cut off her head because, she said, she’d tired of its weight. As her mother lay down on our futon, drawing her hair up off her neck, Annemarie argued with her: she begged, but she’d always been an obedient child. Eventually, she’d give in. She took the axe and decapitated her mother; she moved her mother’s chopped body into the hall and bagged its head. She returned to the futon, lying down in the indentation her mother had left. Minutes later, she heard rustling. She went in the hall. The plastic bag shifted, and when Annemarie pulled the head free, her mother looked at her and asked, without surprise, Can’t you do this one thing right?
After each of these dreams, I rubbed Annemarie’s rigid back until she fell asleep, hands balled under her head. Inevitably, the next morning, she refused to talk about what had happened. Talk? she said, smiling. What about? I think you should talk to someone about your mother, I said. I talk so much, she said. I’m talking to you. Someone with qualifications, I said. What, a therapist? she said. Will, I’m an immigrant. Immigrants don’t believe in therapy. Especially not Koreans. The Koreans I know—most of them would consider needing therapy to be a failure of willpower, or something that only happens to other ethnicities, like being lazy, or unfilial. I think a therapist could help you, I said. To be honest, she said, I’ve never been sure I see the purpose of therapy. For me, that is. I understand other people find it worthwhile, but, okay, let’s assume I feel badly about my mother’s death. Why would that be something I’d want to sit around examining? Kingsley Amis says the three most depressing words in the English language are “Red or white?” but, obviously, he’s wrong. The most depressing words in English are “Last night, I dreamed,” and—
She riffed like this awhile. I suppose I let it happen. Even now, as I recall these nighttime fits of grief, part of me wants to protest that this wasn’t her, not really, and that the Annemarie I knew is the one who, on a childhood trip to Delphi with her mother, leaped on top of the ruins. Though she couldn’t recall much else about the long-ago trip, I’d filled in the details until it seemed I might have been with her, our early lives conjoined: the hot drowsy bus ride from Athens to Delphi, a miniaturized Annemarie dozing on my shoulder, her flushed skin adhering to mine. The bus stopped, and we got out. She stood in her striped dress, squinting against the sunlight. I held her hand. We jumped from stone to ancient stone, raising exuberant brumes of dust.
But months passed, and Annemarie’s dreams about her mother returned so often that, after a while, habituated, I woke up less easily. As Annemarie thrashed in her sleep, her mother found her in a swimming pool and said, Hold my head underwater until I drown. They stood on a rooftop, and her mother told Annemarie to push her off. I can’t do it myself, her mother said. It has to be you. At last, opening my eyes, I’d recognize Annemarie. Still half-asleep, I shook her awake. The next morning, she flashed her smile, a warning. If I tried again, insisting she find help, her smile widened. It lit her up. In a glade of light, she slipped away.
R. O. Kwon‘s writing has been published or is forthcoming in NOON, Ploughshares, the Believer, and elsewhere. Named one of Narrative’s “30 Below 30” writers, she’s been awarded fellowships to Yaddo and Ledig House, as well as scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.
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