Artwork by Stephanie Rodriguez. 
http://stephanierodriguez.artroof.com

Sluice

by Lisa McCallum

I live in a house whose walls move. They are off-white and they wave back and forth, from me, to the outside, to the floor. One day they will sway so far into me, I will die. Of suffocation. Or perhaps of self-induced strangulation. Simply put, I'm much too claustrophobic for these walls and this room.

I never thought they would betray me like that, in the way they have. I knew they would sooner or later, in some way, but I thought they might be more ingenious than they were. They are this off-white color, this color of powdered cream for coffee, and of vanilla pudding. A soft color, but also one of dinginess and scorn.

Yesterday I sat beside the walls all day. I thought they would protect me, but they didn't. They only swayed, back and forth, and at times (around noon and five) they swayed into me so hard they hurt my backbone. Maybe I'm getting scoliosis. I should have that checked.

My mother came yesterday to see how I was doing. She said she would come at five, but she came at six-forty. That kind of pissed me off, but I didn't let it show. I looked nice. I had put on makeup and my pink dress for her. I thought she would like it. She told me it was wrinkled and had a stain on the sleeve. She tried to rub it out, and I pushed her arm away. It kept grabbing for me, over and over, just like the walls do.

I don't understand how they can do that. I tried to explain to my mother about them and how they move. She ignored me. She told me that she and my father were speaking again after a very silent period of two weeks and how I should be happy. I didn't care, and I told her. She got all pink in the face and kept walking back and forth across the room. A couple of times she almost touched the walls; I told her to stop it, that they didn't like being touched, except by me. Then she left.

Today I did almost nothing. I promised myself that I would work on my poems again, but I didn't have the strength. I went for a walk in the flower garden and then I didn't have any energy left. The walk took me twenty minutes, which was a lot for me. Usually I only go for ten. The doctor said that was good. Then she smiled at me, and I had to look outside. The roses are almost ready to bloom.

Last month they wouldn't let me walk out there. They said the prickly things on the rose bushes would get me, but I know now they won't. They are rather nice to feel. Sometimes, after they let me walk out there now, I sneak a few of the prickly things up to my room, in my pocket, and I sit and feel them for a few minutes, sometimes longer. I haven't been caught yet. I know the doctor wouldn't like it, but I like the way I can sometimes get a little blood from the middle of my finger, and I like how it trickles. But I never spill.

After they let me walk in the flower garden with the white and yellow daisies and the salmon-colored roses, the walls stopped swaying so much during daylight. They do it more at night now, though. When it's dark in my room, the walls don't look so nice and creamy, so smooth. They become dingy and bumpy. Three and a half weeks ago, I looked at the window and I know I saw the screen following the walls. It was trying so hard to sway with them that it almost tore a hole in itself. After that night I don't open my eyes after they turn off the lights in my room.

There have been days when I wished that my father would call. We used to talk a little, but not too much, just the amount a parent and child should. We even used to go fishing and camping together once in a while. I don't miss him, though. He isn't important enough for me to really miss him. The only thing I really miss by being in here is my fish. It's blue with green fins. I wonder if my mother killed it yet.

Last night they let us watch television. More than usual. Usually they don't let you watch so much, so you just have to sit and stare at the off-white walls. But last night there was a show on that they liked, so they let us watch it too. It was boring and I wanted to leave the TV room with its glazed faces and painless expressions and call my mother, but then I realized how stupid, how really insane, that would be. She was probably working. She works in a large, steel office building downtown. I'm sure she would have been working into the evening and I would have startled her.

Once I called her when she was working. She never let me forget it, no matter how hard I tried. I've never been in her office. I heard it's pretty, though, with mauve carpeting and rose-colored curtains. My father told me. He liked it, said it was better than his. He was just joking, though; he's always joking. He doesn't even work in an office, so how would he know? The doctor tried to give me pills again today. But I told her I won't take the yellow ones anymore. The pink ones, yes. But not the yellow ones. They make me pee.

I wish they'd let me have my CD player in here. When the walls sway long and hard like they did yesterday, I wish I had music to go with them. My sister called me at noon, but I wouldn't answer it. I was busy; the walls were actually pressing out instead of in at me and I didn't want to miss it. It was quite fascinating, and I knew that if I tried to tell her about it, she would think I was making it up. Maybe I am. I doubt it, but at least it's entertaining. She's the reason I'm in here anyway. She must have felt guilty, so she called. I don't like it when she pretends to care. I can't deal with falsities.

The doctor liked my poems. I finally let her read some of them, but not the real personal ones, naturally. Not the dark ones about the yellow flowers, the white sun, the smooth, dripping thorns; she'd misunderstand. She said I should write more of them, but most days I just don't have the time. She said she understood when I told her that. I know they're good and all, but sometimes I can't write. I get this black blotch in my brain that won't leave until I sleep, and some days it's there the next day too. Those are the only times I don't care about what's happened to me and I wish I could stay here forever. I know I can't, that I may have to leave soon, but it's easier. Easier than having to remember to feed my blue fish and easier than having to listen to my father's jokes. Easier than laughing at them.

I forgot to look at the walls again today. I haven't looked at them for a week now, and I wonder if they're still moving like they should. I told the doctor I had this huge pain in my head, this big, black spot that hurts like hell, so she let me go for a walk. She was so patronizing about it, but since I wasn't lying about the pain, I didn't care. It must be the black blotch that prevents me from writing. Today I hated it, because I felt this magnificent, powerful poem coming on, coming quickly and desperately into my brain, and not wanting to stay there but wanting almost immediately to come out in the form of words and phrases, but it couldn't because of the dark spot there. I stole three prickly things from the roses, but couldn't get any blood to come out of my finger. It just wouldn't come out.

The doctor admitted the walls move today. She came into my room at four, and when I told her that they still move even when I don't look at them, she agreed with me. I think the last patient who lived in here told her the same thing, so she was prepared. It's good to be prepared. My mother likes it when I'm prepared. I wasn't prepared to stay here, though, for as long as I have. It happened so fast. It wasn't too painful, though. I thought I'd be shocked when it finally happened, when they finally did it. But I wasn't.

My days go on forever lately. I feel poems, lots of them, about all sorts of things, issues, situations, problems, deaths, building up inside my dark spot. Occasionally I pick up a pencil to get them out. They must like it inside, like my blood when I tried to prick it yesterday, because they won't come out anymore. The pain in my brain gets worse at night now, when it's quite dark and only irritating, pale yellow stars are outside, but the doctor said it's no problem. Not to worry. I thought about telling my father, but he'd just make a joke about it and change the subject to cars or his new dog, a Golden Retriever. I hope they let me go for a walk tomorrow.

I slept more this week, and every day when I wake up, the walls are moving. They sway like turquoise waves, back and forth, like they want me to go surfing with them in their own personal ocean. Their color has changed, though. Now they are darker, shadowy, with stripes of gray on their dull cream. I close my eyes against them, but they are always there when I open them. I wish my father would tell me the retriever's name; things don't seem real when they don't have names. Faces don't usually matter as much.

I got blood today, but not much. It felt like it was tired of sitting in my finger, doing nothing, so it got bored and came out when I wanted it to. That made me mad; it shouldn't try to please me. My mother talked to the doctor today. I asked the doctor what they had talked about (just to be polite, not out of curiosity), but she answered in such a way that I knew was all rehearsed, that she had answered that way for many years, to many others, and always in the same way. It made me want to write another poem, but I couldn't. I only got two lines down before the pain came back. It gets worse now, and not just in the daytime when sun hurts. Last night I wanted to check out the walls, but when I glanced quickly at them, they peered back at me with white eyes, mocking me for no reason I could decipher. I had no answer for them. I can't rehearse things like I used to. Like most people can.

The roses are different. They used to be pink, but now they are peach. They look like they are tainted with urine. Dirty flowers. I told my sister about them; she called today at three. I told her that they had changed color and were smudged and marred now. She told me about her new boyfriend. She didn't tell me his name either. Now I have to make up names for the Golden Retriever and the New Boyfriend. How tiring.

I know I am neglecting things. Things like the surfing walls, the pink pills, the garden walks, the doctor's orders. But I can't ignore the dark spot. I know because I have tried. Very hard. It is spreading and no one can tell. Now I am afraid to tell anyone because they might not believe me. They didn't believe me last time, even after I had a very expensive and useless brain scan. My mother is coming tomorrow. I better clean my pink dress.

She never showed up. I thought she said today, but she must have said a different day. I didn't want to see her today anyway, though, because the black blotch was there. Bigger than ever. I told the doctor about it finally. I told her how it grows and how it's painful and how it's not going to go away. She told me how to write a poem, and to tell her when I was done with that and she would let me take a walk. I wanted to see the roses, to see if they had changed color again, but I couldn't move. My bed threatened to swallow me if I did not lie very still in it.

The sun didn't come up today. I stared outside on the shortest day of the year and looked for it. The sky stayed gray, like the walls; they have changed too. They must be following the same schedule as the flowers. I found a prickly thing in my bed and threw it on the floor, not in the corner, but in the middle where my sister would step on it if she ever came. Now it's there just for reserve.

My father called; he wanted to "stop by." I declined. I didn't truthfully care if he saw me or not, but I couldn't sit up today. I was just too exhausted. The doctor said it was okay if I stayed in bed. I told her my sheets were so white and I wanted to enjoy them and feel them while they were still clean and soft, like pure powdered sugar. She smiled at me and asked me if the walls were still moving like they used to. I turned away without answering. It's none of her business, but (just so you know), they aren't. They stopped about a week ago. All I can see now are streaks on the walls that remind me of dusty, dry, brown roads that never stop. Not even at the corners.

My mother asked me today about the roses. She said probably they missed having me walk beside them out in the garden, and that I should get out of bed and go talk to them like I used to. After she left, I smiled, thinking that she was actually pressuring me to talk to inanimate objects. Strange lady. Family day: my sister called too. She said she was scared to visit me, otherwise she would. I didn't tell her the walls stopped moving. Or that I couldn't think of a name for her New Boyfriend. I'm sure she would have been disappointed.

The days seem to be getting shorter, though I know they're not. I seriously don't think the sun comes up anymore. The doctor told me it does (some days, that is), but I doubt it. My black spot has taken over my brain. It spread thoroughly in only two weeks. I didn't try to stop it though. It wasn't worth it. The doctor thinks I am making it up. My father wrote me a little letter with jokes "to make you feel better"; they didn't work. When I smiled, I could feel a tough spot in my stomach, a knot that reminded me of the faraway, hidden, dark, wet, lukewarm spot that the worm in the bottom of the tequila bottle hides in. It is almost as scared as I. But at least I won't be saturated with alcohol after dying. They wouldn't do that to me.

The doctor finally believes that I am in a little bit of pain. Actually, I am in a lot of pain, but I tell myself that I have to fake it. Otherwise, they'll visit me. I don't want visitors. They would open the curtains and I would have to look out at the garden again. The doctor told me the flowers, especially the roses, are dying because I haven't been looking after them. They are turning orange, then brown, then dead. I told her to fuck off. I don't care about the roses. I never did. Only the prickly things. The thorns are what hold the power. But how was I supposed to ask her how the thorns were doing without looking like an idiot?

The walls are okay now. I can't tell if they are cream or gray anymore, but they seem satisfied. I keep my eyes closed all day now. To look all day at something so satisfied as a blank wall is a bit disheartening to me. So I won't look at anything, not even the doctor or her pink pills going into my open mouth. I told her I am conducting a personal experiment to see what it's like to be blind. She smiled a little then, I know she did. I could feel it.

I opened my eyes today. I read the first page of my journal. I decided that self-strangulation is too difficult to perform and I will have to take the alternate route of suffocation. Now that the walls don't sway in and out and squeeze the air out of my room, I am searching for a different method. Something easy, something that will make the black blotch find a new home. It covers my head tightly with grips like a nutcracker's handles. It pinches the top, sides, and back part where my neck connects my hair to my skin. I have tried to pull it off. Every night hairs stick to my pillow where I leave them after I try to pull off the spot and its handles.

My mother came to wash my pillowcase. She said it was disgusting and unhygienic, with all that hair on it. I told her they were mine, so they weren't really gross at all. I didn't have to open my eyes to tell her though. She didn't ask me to open them either. I think she's getting used to me. They all are. They don't call very much anymore. When they do, I don't get up. I told the doctor I wanted more pills for my pain. A(n) (un)fortunate side effect: they cost my father lots of money.

I put on my pink dress today. It was dry and clean, but starchy. The middle part doesn't fit anymore. My mother must have had it altered. Neither does the top part. The starchy parts hang there in pointy little cones. Cones covered in sugary, pink, bubble gum ice cream. I put on the dress and lay in bed until the walls waved to me. Around three they started to rearrange themselves into an ocean all their own. An ocean of coffee cream, tainted powdered sugar, and bumpy, tapioca pudding. They swayed slowly, then quicker, until my eyes wanted to look away but couldn't. I watched them until the clouds left and the moon sliced itself a piece out of the navy blue sky.

I saw the walls move again today. I saw them move toward me and away from me, and they came closer into my room, crept loudly up to my bed and roared in my ears and eyes. I saw their creamy blue waves ride over my stark white sheets. They touched my pillow under my head. They touched my head. They cleaned off the dark, clinging, wet, black spot so it didn't hurt anymore, so it didn't pull tightly at odd points in my skull for no reason, so I wouldn't need a pink pill later. Then they touched my lips and I could taste their gritty, sweet, peppermint blueness on my tongue. I could hear the fleshy lungs in my chest breathing quicker, then slower, before I stopped listening. Cool, white sun shone through my eyelids, penetrating their veins. They will all be so proud of me; I finally learned to surf.

2007 by Lisa McCallum.


Lisa McCallum is a writer and English as a Second Language teacher in the Twin Cities. Her travel essays, short fiction, and poetry have appeared in Tango Diva, inTravel Magazine, Loonfeather, The Mid-America Poetry Review, North Country, and other journals.