The Collecting

Short Stories

By Kaitlin Schmidt 

            She wrote of her father’s family, which she met only in dreams. The fabrication of details didn’t upset her conscience because the doctor gave her license to ‘create’ whatever she thought would contribute to healing. Claire created and recreated, things from her mind and life and things from an imagined life she might have lived once.

            Instead of unpacking the boxes that formed cardboard towers all around her childhood bedroom, she rummaged in her old desk for paper. Her palms became coated in soft gray dust while she investigated the empty cubbies and drawers. She had been gone long enough for these spaces to be unfamiliar now. Out the window and up the street – the lawns and houses were only the bones of her memories, while all the flesh and color had changed.

            She found a yellow legal pad with scribbles about a missed phone call on the top page. She ripped it off and started fresh.

            The facts were never nailed down, the youngest sister craved answers but they floated between her fingers like mist, only moistening her palms. She listened to her mother speak of family photographs.
“Some folks in everyday clothes and alongside them full Indians with feathers and beads all the way down.”

They were relatives, she said. The people in the photos were the great aunts and uncles that had left the reservations for a different sort of living and then came back to visit. These photos, though much discussed, could never be produced when relatives were called upon to search them out from top-shelf closet boxes and from basement storage bins.

            Claire wrote her story fluidly, after the manner of life. She, of all people, understood how stories naturally change and twist all on their own. Her doctor had suggested the writing and followed that up with words like ‘catharsis’ and ‘health’.

            The youngest sister could only remember the look of Great-Grandmother’s hair and hands because it had been so long and she was so young when she saw them last. But when she needs something for the collecting, she goes to remembering. She remembers most the stories that the old woman told and retold, heard from the pony-tailed reservation boys who visited her.

            The story happened that a well-loved man in the tribe was shot through the heart with an arrow by his hunting partner and friend. While amongst the trees, the friend was startled by a movement in the woods and shot blindly and hastily, only to find that he had killed his friend, the well-loved man.

            Great-Grandmother said it was custom, after such a thing, for the Natives to send a woven basket from family to family for The Collecting. All the things which the man once gave or owned was collected – this was to keep that spirit from returning to those who may wish to possess his things and keep him alive in their homes. When all his things had been collected, the people would pile blankets and pelts and loaves of bread in the basket as well – this was to keep the man nourished and warm in the life to come.

            Claire reimagined pages and pages of her history. Every hour of the day was hers to contemplate and dream, save for the time allotted for tasks of normalcy – laundry, dusting, the cleaning of the fridge. Her mother occasionally put her to work this way when she felt Claire was looking pale from dwelling too long on the wrong things. Sometimes her father would ask about the boxes in her room and she would think something like

            I can’t touch them yet

            And her father might say whenever you are ready.

            The pattern of regular life, once lost to her, was difficult for Claire to regain. The only pattern that remained was a pill schedule twice a day with reminders from her mother and the help of a glass of milk. While she realized that going back to work was unrealistic still, she made a point to stop into her parents’ bakery when she made trips out of the house. The smell of bread and the look of wood floors dusted in flour was a sturdy image and made her feel less like a cloud. She would be sent home with a loaf or two, promising an apron-wrapped friend to catchup soon. Claire thought about writing a story for the people she worked with who sent her condolence cards. It would go something like,

            I can’t make it through a whole day here the way I am now and I miss it, yes, but I can eat this bread you have made with your hands and think of all the good it does me. That’s enough for now.

When she writes it for herself it goes:
The mother might say “eating bread made by a friend feeds the stomach and the soul.”

            The grandmother might say “the bread is thick and filling, that is, it fills the stomach and then the heart and all other empty places.”

            The youngest sister believes. She does as the others do and dips her bread in water when she eats – it is heavy that way, and sticks to the inside to keep the people full.

            There were some stories which were already written for her and Claire could not mold them into anything useful. No matter how she kneaded the facts, the story never rose into what she wished it looked like. After her tampering, these stories never tasted right on paper. 

Though she tried to fix it, the story in her file at the clinic read –

Patient Claire Black, diagnosed acute paranoia. Origin of syndrome – early childhood (6 yrs of age) encounter with home intruder. Summary of Ms. Black’s first explanation of incident: The intruder (male) entered through Black’s bedroom window while she was asleep and the noise woke her. She began to scream, then the male struck her face to quiet her. Realizing the homeowners may have heard, the intruder ran down the hallway of the house and exited breaking through the patio doors. The police were called by the parents of Ms. Black upon hearing the commotion and the intruder was apprehended later that night. Police report shows no serious injury to any party involved and no property stolen.

            She made new habits for herself, which was recommended by her psychiatrist but only of little interest to her case manager, who had not checked in much in the past few weeks. These activities included leisure reading in the morning instead of at night, reorganizing drawers and cupboards, and unpacking only one box per day.

            The unpacking had to come slowly. Handling items from a life deserted is a taxing, tiring business. It would happen occasionally that a sock, much too big for her, had found its way among her own and she had to discard it, or that a photo would slip from between book pages – she no longer looked like that version of herself.

            They wore purposely over dramatic expressions there, so in love that embarrassment didn’t keep them from silliness. He donned a sweater with a squirrel on it; they poked fun at the name of the resort.           

Claire sometimes began to feel weak and dry after just one box, and the stories that she couldn’t reshape seemed to write themselves on her when she tried to sleep that weariness away. She would curl up on her bed, under a blanket that smelled of age and peppernuts from the cupboard in the pantry where it was stored. She tried to loosen her chest on her own, without medication, tried to sleep away anxiousness. 

            The court dialogue from the trial record would narrate her dream.
            …. “Ms. Black, is it fair to say that it was your idea to keep a firearm in the house?”
     “Yes.”

     “Did Mr. Samuels ever express a desire to keep a firearm in the house?”

     “No.”

     “And you took a course on how to fire that particular weapon when you purchased it?”
     “Yes.”

     “Had you been professionally diagnosed with any mental illness at the time you purchased the weapon?”
     “No.”

     “But, you had, in previous years, participated in psychoanalytic therapy?”
     “Yes.”

     “You purchased the firearm, according to your statement, for a sense of quote ‘safety in the home’ unquote, is this accurate?”

     “Yes.”

     “And Pardon my frankness, but do you feel, sitting before me today Ms. Black, that a firearm in the home brings added ‘safety’?”
     (Typist addition – Defense interruption)

     (Objection – Irrelevant)

     (Sustained)

            These stories were not what Claire was home to think about and when she awoke with wet eyelashes that had been catching all her sleep tears, she thought of things to write. The legal pad began to fill up with other, better things.

            The grandmother would fetch a blanket from her bedroom, faded green and beige. She often spread it over the grandchildren when they were ill. She said the diamond shapes on it were good for a cold; the drums and warriors within the stripes could scare off the flu.
“It must be original. It’s sturdy. 100 years old maybe” She would fold it around the children and tell of her suspicions. “My mother bought it from a peddler in an old Ford. They drove across the prairie, then, selling Native things – jewelry and things blessed by healers”

            She would pull it all the way over the children’s’ heads and tell them to sleep like that. Fevers were broken this way time and again.   

            In the evening, after dinner was eaten quietly and cleared away, Claire did the washing of the dishes and her mother did the drying. The suds collected on her wrists and her fingers felt more alive and a part of her with every time she plunged them in warm water and lifted them out again into the coolness of the room.

            She thought of her story, always.

            The grandfather talked once of a woman with burned palms; he said she was suffering from night visions and so they put her to sleep with coals in her hands. It burned her, yes, but the sensation was a healing thing. She awoke, and from then on only saw and felt what was real.

            Talk was kept gentle and light, emerging in the silences between running water and the sound of clanking flatware. Her mother smiles at her often as if to remind her it is common practice for some people. When the dishes are finished and Claire stares into the water, smiling and nodding for her mother as she talks, the mother says in her way,

            We want you to be comfortable here, for as long as you want

            They tipped their heads together then, as was custom for the women of the family, cheek to forehead, a moment hold there to silently tell the other person something without words.

            If Claire were to write all the unspoken things, she would have said something like
            I don’t know how life turns out this way, but I can make this work. I don’t know how yet, but soon I will fix myself with all I’m learning.  
             and her mother might say

            Nothing is impossible to bounce back from. We can make it work.

            Her parents would help her unload sets of dishes that never made it to the cupboards of Claire’s home. There were curtain rods that only fit the windows there but were certainly too new to simply throw away. There were linens and throw pillows, office supplies and of course, the toaster.

            None of these things had a home in this house. Claire’s new one-room habitat made them unnecessary. Many of them would have to be donated, which Claire imagined to be an act of cleansing, if she could manage it.

            While her mother rang the buzzer at the drop-off door to the thrift shop, Claire stood a ways behind her, staring down into the cardboard box of kitchen things in her arms.

            I loved him. I loved him and all of his things and I maybe never told him that. Now I am giving away all things us and I will be left with only me.

            The metal door slid up noisily and opened to reveal a worker in a red vest ready to take the donation.

            In this moment she put her story to use. She wrote it in her mind then and it traveled down her spine, holding her upright, turning her into something solid.

            The youngest sister collected images she heard and stories she touched. The boundary between real and imagined was a river for her, with a thousand footbridges crossing it. The bridges were well worn by family myths and retold by her imagination’s own will. When The Collection came to her, she spoke a story of the man into the basket and passed it on. The youngest sister made this a practice and told the people that the man in his new life could use it like a blanket or eat it like bread.

            Claire inhaled a large breath and let it ache in her lungs to feel something else besides fear as she handed the box off to the waiting man. She spoke aloud to him.
            “We will be back tomorrow with more.”    

            If Claire could have rewritten the police report, it would read:
He said he was leaving for a week and so I was left alone in our new, beautiful, terrifyingly empty home. He said not to worry. He said all the doors lock. He said this neighborhood was wonderful. He said he loved me. He kissed me goodbye, both hands on my face.

But I woke on the fourth day of his absence with stretched nerves – it had been too quiet and too still for too long – when I heard muffled noises outside and the rattle of the door downstairs there was a stretching and a breaking of fibers in my chest.


Yes, my heart crashed against the rest of my insides and I was trying to breathe through the fear that tied my ribs tight together and there were tears in my eyes which was why I could not see. No, I was not prepared to shoot and kill as I had told myself I was when I purchased the gun. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t feel, but I rounded a corner and saw the man and I shot and kept shooting until the gun only clicked back at me and even then I kept clicking. I know I must have screamed at him, I know that I was angry for myself and how scared I always was and always had been and I wanted to murder that fear and blow it to bits until I could breathe again. 

            I called the ambulance for him and sat next to him and took his hand as everything ended. His life leaked out onto my knees and hands and stained my skin, as it stains me still.

He had told me not to worry, but that was asking too much.
I had not checked my messages. I had not taken my medication.

The message on the phone said “The conference isn’t over, but who cares! …3 days is long enough to be away. I’m coming home to you. Hopping on an overnight now…love you”

            It was lucky, then, that I had no more bullets.

               One box at a time, the room was emptied of all the things Claire didn’t need anymore. She kept only things that were necessary and her own, but even then nothing was completely free of him. It took a gritting of teeth and a commitment to imagination on her part to find balance in her own story. There was a proportion of reality and wishes and present and past that needed to be reached as she healed herself. She unloaded boxes and rebuilt herself with words, hoping for a fix that was much less modern and tangible than a prescription.

           The youngest sister projected all her fiction onto the world as she grew. She wrapped herself in it, and it kept her warm as she traveled through her many lives.

            The giving away of items was cleansing, as Claire had predicted, and it was managed better and better every day. But no matter how many books or sheets or coffee mugs she gave away, he sometimes returned to her in things he had never possessed. Things that he had never seen or touched were imbued by his spirit because she chose stories to keep him alive in. These were part of a well-proportioned plan for her life.

            He was in the things she loved most. The green and beige blanket which smelled of age and peppernuts, patterned and worn soft from her grandmother’s hands and her childhood use had some part of him in its fibers because it had some part of her.
            She went to her bed and fell backward onto it, raising the blanket in an arch above her as she fell. It parachuted down over her, impossibly slow and light and graceful for its true weight. It fell to her frame and enfolded it, but next to her on the bed there was a moment of air – the shape of him in the descending fabric, an unexplainable breath that kept the blanket suspended long enough for her to see him there beside her.

            There was a dimple, a smile, a strong nose. The faintest hint of grey-green eyes. A laugh.

            The air left gently, an exhale, as the blanket collapsed.

            When the last of the boxes filled with unnecessary things were finally packed, Claire heaved them into the arms of the red vested volunteer. There was a pinprick of pain, as there always is with the giving away of memories, but with it a feeling of spaciousness inside her; as if in her skin was only sun and air.

            There is a story about the stories of the youngest sister. She began to collect them and made them into bread and water. She nourished herself with the lightest of things. 
              

           
                           

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