The Perils of Rosella
My father is dying.
To the west: sharp-toothed seas. To the east: uncharted territory.
My father has forgotten where he put his adventuring hat. He says he’s cold now that his hair has fallen out. Embarrassed, he tells me he hasn’t weighed this little since he was in junior high. His giant hands and feet are numb and his chest hurts, like he’s having a heart attack. He isn’t. It’s just the tumor growing along his esophagus. The good fairy says I can prolong his life, but he’s only interested in maintaining control via assisted suicide laws. Sometimes I think we could jump off this cliff together and then I wouldn’t feel this swooping/cringing sort of dread anymore.
But that’s selfish. My father and I aren’t the only ones involved here. We have family. And there are the once-strangers, now-friends who’ve woven in and out of our lives, a net of coincidences. Sometimes they help. Sometimes they do more harm than good. I try to make conversation with women who have no time for me. In turn I ignore the Bard who sings to me in the sweet meadow. I don’t have time for sweet meadows. I don’t even have time to find a hat; I have to help the fairy so she’ll help me. Or else all is lost.
I take a deep breath, go back to square one in this new place. Use the context provided instead of roving aimlessly. The good fairy says I must retrieve her talisman from the witch before I can help my father who is now wearing my old ski hat, the purple one with the enormous, flopping pom pom. He wears it as he suns himself on a bench in the summer heat, like a bronze, loose-skinned lizard. He falls asleep on the swing, in the hammock, in his truck bed. Neighbors, I say. He’s too old for vanity, he says, though this mantra predates the cancer.
I go toward the sunrise until I find the mountains. I climb them because they are there. I’m whisked away by the witch’s orderlies. Inside her lair, the witch questions my motives. Honestly, so do I.
How many times in my life will I be asked to find a goddamned unicorn? I have no virtues to speak of. I’m too old and I’m not even sure if I believe in innocence anymore, let alone one-horned horses. But it’s for my father, right? On the way to find the unicorn, I run into Pan playing hymns on his flute, and I try to feel something of use somewhere deep inside, something redeeming. I start to cry and everyone says Hallelujah! but that’s not why I’m crying at all.
I catch glimpses of the unicorn, but no surprise, it runs from me. While in pursuit, I stumble upon a house built inside a tree stump — one of many things here that aren’t what they seem. I’ll add this location to the rough maps I’ve drawn on the back of these pamphlets titled What to Expect and Ways to Cope. But on the table inside the house, there’s barely any room to write.
Maybe this is a fairy tale. There are seven dirty plates and seven dirty spoons. Seven unmade beds and seven pairs of bunny slippers. Good things happened to Snow White when she helped out, didn’t they?
The work feels good. Normal. It’s been too long since I’ve done anything normal, anything without significance. The last time we [fill in the blank]. The final trip to [fill in the blank]. Here, these are simply dishes. This is only a broom. That a bucket. No more, no less.
The dwarves come home and share their meal with me. I forget my quest for one, short wine-soaked evening. Afterwards, the guilt is almost intolerable. My father continues to die and here I am fucking around.
One of the dwarves has left a pouch of diamonds on the table. I could pocket them and leave this place forever. Buy the good fairy a new talisman. Buy the witch a unicorn. Buy my father a cure. Buy myself full amnesia. Now that would be a real fairy tale.
Instead, I follow the dwarves back to the mine because, as my father would say, you don’t get something for nothing. Not even the good fairy works for free.
Despite my altruism, the dwarves are swimming in diamonds, and tell me to keep the gems. For my honesty, they give me a lantern. Right now, I don’t have much use for diamonds either, but the lantern is sure to come in handy. I can see the darkness ahead. Patient. Waiting.
My father says he’s not ready to go; he’s scared of death. This isn’t going to be one of those heroic scenes where the king raises his sword and walks gladly towards the light. He insists we go to dinner then watches us eat. He paces. He broods. He says he doesn’t even have enough energy to talk about it. I try to read him Kipling and Frost and Jeffers but he waves me off. He takes his respirator treatments like he’s at a hookah cafe, bringing the apparatus to his lips and blowing away the vapor, cup of coffee in his free hand. He’s awake in the morning. He’s awake at night.
I’m awake at night, too. I wish he wouldn’t cough so much. I wish wishing didn’t seem so cruel. I wish I didn’t have to wish. In the dark hallway the only light comes from under the door, everyone else is pretending they don’t hear him gasping and retching and cursing. In the morning there’s blood mist on the floor, on the vanity, on the toilet.
When I do sleep my dreams are twisted and strange. I wander, collecting golden things: cupid’s bow, a golden ball, a frog, a prince’s crown. These golden things are so beautiful. One of them will surely help me catch the unicorn.
The Unicorn still runs from me.
The Unicorn no longer runs from me. Cupid’s non-lethal arrows leave the animal dazed and listless. But I have nothing to lead it with, so it will not follow me. My father wants to talk about these things. He wants to believe because wouldn’t it be nice to believe he asks and I say yes it would be nice. I’m scared and he’s scared. My father tries harder. I act like I’m trying harder. I swim the seas to find islands of treasure. I find a worm, a fish, a feather. Maybe I can do this. Maybe we can do this.
Hallelujah! I say, seconds before I’m swallowed by a whale.
BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME
It’s dark inside this whale. Good thing I have a lantern. I fail a thousand times convincing the leviathan to release me. My father would say this was a cosmic sense of humor at work, a message in a bottle about taking Jonah and Moby Dick too seriously.
Would you like to restore your game?
No. I’d like to restart before that. At Christmas when it was just pneumonia. Before that when the tumors might have been small. Before that, even. But no one saved the game back then.
I fall 20 more times before I can reach the uvula of the whale with my feather, forcing it to sneeze. I land on a new island with more treasure. A golden whistle. A golden bridle.
I tire of the scenery; the unicorn is not where I expect it to be. When I finally find it, I slip my thumb into the soft corner of its mouth, rubbing its tongue so it will open its teeth, accept the golden bit. I slip the bridle’s headpiece around its ears and pull the tuft of shining mane out from under the browband. Gathering the reins at the unicorn’s withers, I bounce three times and jump. Once I’ve bellied up, I swing my right leg over and take my seat, lowering my heels.
When I was young my father got angry when I rode without a saddle. Little did he know that the dangers we’d eventually face would be devoid of hoof and stomp, coming on with the speed of an IV drip. Would that it had been something sudden like broken bones and wounded pride — things we could fix.
I squeeze my knees and make a kissing sound, driving the animal straight into the arms of the witch. In another lifetime, I might have cared about the unicorn, tried to save it, too. Even if the feeling was mutual, I don’t have the compassion to spare.
The witch isn’t satisfied. She’s gotten over unicorns. All these golden things I’ve gathered and she wants none of them. This — and only this — I can understand.
My father has parceled out his belongings, telling me we can divide his things between us by drawing straws, casting lots. He tells me his chattel is worth millions. It’s his medications, the cancer in his brain. I tell him not to worry. I tell him we’ll think about it. I tear up the notes he’s drawn, afraid that someone else will see. I want to protect his dignity. The next day he asks if we’ve discussed it before, and I say no. I make him start from the ridiculous beginning every time, hoping he’ll somehow hear himself, hoping we never get far enough in the conversation that I have to tell him, Stop dying, I don’t want any of your shit. I don’t want to have to say, Please don’t go. It is evident he feels guilty enough already.
The back and forth is relentless. The witch. The good fairy. The failures and the restarts. The false hope and the treks across the ancient ocean bottom. You don’t need to be here the whole time, he tells me. I relax a little. They said it would be weeks, but it’s been months. Perhaps we’re winning after all. I wander the pretty scenery. I ponder my golden things. I try to be thankful for the thousands of restarts. I take some time to myself, try to remember what home feels like, what hope feels like.
I can re-play this part as many times as I want, but phone still rings at 4 am telling me to get on a plane.
I’m at the airport. I’ve brought a banana and I’m barely dressed. The phone rings again.
The plane hasn’t even finished boarding. It feels like a shark bite, a sharp rip down the middle of my chest. I’m on my knees and the Bard is grabbing at me like the limbs of the haunted trees near the cemetery. But it’s too late. I’m too late. The banana and the phone fall from my hands and I’m sobbing on the filthy airport floor, gasping for air, grabbing for the Bard’s knees.
You cannot do that here.
There is nothing to look at.
Flight [fill in the blank] is making its final boarding call.
The Bard has put my phone and my banana in my purse. He hands me my sunglasses. He herds me toward the gate.
It is time to start the rest of my life without him.
The sun is still shining.
But everything looks different.
Do you wish to quit this game? Y/N
(It’s okay. I know you were too tired to wait any more wait any more.)