The Old Maids (Excerpt of new short story)
I saw her once after her brother died. She lay on the bed like a deflated bag, her legs like two sticks sticking out from under the comforter, her skin paper thin except on her feet where it was thick and cracked, her unclipped toes curving painfully inwards. The room smelled like rotting flesh. It was not quite the smell of death which I remembered when cancer had starved my father. It was the smell before death, the smell of bedsores and soiled sheets, the smell of old crackers and cookie crumbs caught between the corners, the smell of molded milk in brittle teacups and all the dusty porcelain pillboxes with their painted spaniels. Old age merged to illness merged to death and with it, a litany of smells.
When I entered, only a faint recollection traced across her eyes, which opened momentarily under the weight of drugged eyelids. She had been lost for some time, Richard had warned.
“Tante Brigitte, it’s me. It’s Marie, your niece,” I struggled for words, “I’m so sorry…”
“Sorry for what?”
“We were so sad to hear about Uncle Maxime.”
“What’s wrong with Maxime?” a heavy eye pried itself open.
Her brother Maxime had died three days before. He was in his late eighties and had been hospitalized for months. No one was particularly surprised but it was still sad. He had died alone, before Richard or I could arrive. The nurse told us he had been calling for Brigitte in the throes of death. He was confused, not remembering that his sister had been too feeble of body and mind to hold his hand during his final hours.
“He’s gone, ma Tante.”
“What do you mean?” her eyes rolled to the side.
I patted her hands, frail bones like dead birds. She would pass soon, I thought. Probably like her brother: drugged, demented, in solitude and fear. The sad fate of a certain kind of elderly person, marooned by their own choices, each twist and turn of a life balanced on self propulsion, dangling like a broken filament until all that remained was a blank ceiling and the vague recollection of a nurse wandering in and out of the room, the steady hum of painkillers and the ultimate arch of death rattling through their lungs.