Mavis has only been home from the hospital a month when Ethan informs her of his upcoming business trip in three weeks time. Ethan is a futurist; a job title Mavis believes to be a misleadingly fanciful moniker for the data analysis tedium the job actually entails. These conferences, events Mavis has never attended with Ethan but which take place quarterly, are an essential aspect of the job and Mavis knows Ethan has already missed one week-long seminar while she was away. He should go to his conference. She and the boys will be perfectly fine. Mavis is committed to being well.
Mavis likes to keep the door closed in whatever room she is in but especially in her bedroom. When the door is closed, she feels contained in the room, safe. With the door open, the sounds are an endless, sprawling mess. A cyclone of white noise. Since she has returned home, Mavis spends a lot of time in the bedroom, the only room in the house with black out shades. She doesn’t know what Ethan told the kids about her hospital stay, but they have accepted her absence and reappearance as simply another inexplicable factor in their lives like
Benny, Mavis’s youngest enters the room while she is dressing. Mavis does not mind him seeing her getting dressed. This lack of modesty would have surprised an early Mavis, a pre-children Mavis, but Benny is only five and her notions of privacy have been revised slowly over the course of the last decade. She does insist, however, that he please close the door behind him.
Mavis has heard of sensory deprivation tanks one can go to where you can lie still, suspended in salt water, in complete darkness. Her husband has promised to buy her a gift certificate for Mother’s Day. For sixty minutes she will float and she will hear nothing. Mavis is curious to know what nothing sounds like.
Mavis can trace her hypersensitivity back to when she was a child. Movies gave her headaches. Amusement parks left her fatigued for days. Her parents like to tell a story about how they brought her to an arcade once for a friend’s birthday party and after ten minutes she sat down on the sticky carpet and wouldn’t stop crying until they hustled her out. Ethan tries to be sympathetic. Mavis tamps down the need to apologize for her condition.
She does her best to be normal, to do normal things. She takes Benny to a bounce fun center called JUMP IT! in a suburban strip mall. Six massive inflatable bouncing castles are housed in the 8,000 square foot space. Each one is kept inflated by a churning motor. Mavis must yell to be heard over the noise, Are you having fun? Benny is radiant, running from one castle to the next. Against the far wall parents sit on a plastic bench, placidly checking their phones, reading a book. Not digging their nails into their palms.
On the website, the sensory deprivation tanks look a lot like coffins and the company reassures potential patrons that at anytime and for any reason they have the ability to open the tanks and come out. Mavis suffers from a degree of claustrophobia but it’s less about being confined in tight spaces than about being surrounded by people in a crowd. Their smells and heat forming a physical barrier around her. When she sits in a packed church or attends PTA fundraising events, she can feel her body pulling towards the exits like a plant listing toward light.
She drives the kids to school every morning even though their backseat bickering makes her head pound. Let’s play the quiet game, she suggests, but Anthony who is ten is too old to be taken in by such ruses. Mom, he asks, how many minutes are in a week? Benny begins to count, something he has only recently mastered and takes great pride in. Between 7th Avenue and Westgrove Street, he gets stuck in a loop. 17-18-19-12-17-18-19-12. After dinner Mavis tells Ethan about the car ride. Ethan laughs. Our little Einstein. Do they do this to you to? Mavis wants to know. Do what? Talk incessantly. Ethan shrugs. They’re kids. They like the sound of their own voices. But don’t you feel like sometimes they’re hijacking your train of thought? Like your brain is being invaded? Ethan turns on the faucet and begins washing the dishes. I think they’re just being normal kids. The sound of running water from the faucet drowns out his words. Mavis only realizes how much she hates the sound of the faucet when he turns it off and the sound is blessedly absent.
Mavis knows she is getting worse. Every day she seems to be able to tolerate less and less sound. The squeals of the garbage truck on Wednesday mornings. The blast when the air conditioning turns on. The music coming from her neighbor’s backyard. All of it a suffocating blanket of noise.
The doctor looks in both ears, his breath warm on her cheek. He escorts her to a windowless room where a woman, Mavis doesn’t catch her official title or ranking, places heavy headphones over her ears. The woman moves with a choreographed efficiency around the room setting up the auditory machines to her satisfaction, handing Mavis a red button with instructions to press the button when she hears a beep. The woman sits behind a glass partition, her control console just outside of Mavis’s view. Fog horns blare, then the deep-throated calls of howler monkeys. The shrill cry of a newborn. The thrum of cicadas. The high-pitched squeal of a nervous swine. Mavis hears them all. There’s nothing wrong with your hearing, the doctor informs her when she is delivered back into his care. It pleases him to give her this news and he makes space for her to respond appreciatively but she won’t. Maybe you should try meditating, he offers on his way out of the exam room.
Mavis thinks of her brain as hollowed out cantaloupe or a great underground cave like the cenotes she and Ethan visited in Mexico. Dark, cavernous. Inky fathomless black water. Soaring craggy ceilings concealing sleeping bats. The tour guide warned them not to touch anything, not to speak loudly, not to wear sunscreen. We must preserve the integrity of the caves, of the ecosystems that have lived here for millennia. She and Ethan looped little flashlights on their wrists and wore wetsuits to protect them from the water’s frigid temperatures. Sleek as seals, they eased themselves into the water, gliding through the labyrinth, sometimes swimming through tunnels, surfacing in new caves, the light from their flashlights bobbing white on the surface of the water. Sometimes the walls of the caves were close and confined and others had ceiling so high, the flashlight’s beam was swallowed up trying to trace the stalactites back to their origins. Without the guide they would have been lost a hundred times. When Mavis closes her eyes, she imagines she is still down there, lost among the bats.
There is an hour in the evenings- after the children are in bed, the kitchen cleaned from dinnertime debris, the sun’s relentless gaze a distant memory- when Mavis can feel a sense of stillness and her thoughts are her own to pursue or squander. It is during this time Mavis first notices that the outline of her toes is blurred. Each toe remains distinct, but where there was once clear definition between what was her toe and what was just beyond her toe, in this case the brown leather ottoman on which she is resting her feet, now there is a an indeterminate haziness, a muddling of what should have been two discrete substances. Mavis considers it may be the fault of her vision but when she turns to examine the books on their shelves and the neatly arranged flowers in their vase, everything appears as it should.
Mavis calls for Ethan but when he doesn’t answer she goes upstairs to look for him; her toes do not hurt at all as she walks. She finds him in their bathroom shaving in front of the mirror. Do you notice anything strange about my toes? With one hand on the wall for balance, she holds her foot out for him to appraise. Ethan views her feet in the mirror’s reflection, not pausing his electric shaver which continues to whirr as it makes its way over the smooth planes of his jaw. Looks normal to me. Mavis sits on the toilet lid and wiggles her toes. They feel fine, she says hesitantly.
They look fine, Ethan says. Why? Did you step on something?
No. It’s just that they look a little blurry to me. Around the edges. Like a photograph of something moving too fast.
I don’t see anything. It’s just a normal foot. If it’s still bothering you in the morning, get it checked out.
It’s not bothering me. It’s true. Mavis wiggles her toes again. She is not bothered by it, just curious. In the morning, she thinks her toes are even more blurred, the tips of her big toes are just a flesh colored smudge. She does not get it checked out.
On Sunday Mavis makes deli sandwiches and the family goes to Mountainview park. Anthony and Ethan toss each other a frisbee while Mavis pushes Benny on the swings. Benny has learned how to pump his legs but he still demands Mavis’s involvement in his swinging. From where she is standing, Mavis watches Anthony run, dive and jump, his hand reaching for the frisbee, his whole body reacting to the thrill of the catch, his little body a marvel. Higher, Benny calls to her, registering her inattentiveness. Mavis gives him a firm push and his body soars.
They find an empty park bench and Mavis distributes the sandwiches, turkey for herself and Ethan, bologna for Anthony and Benny. Benny, she knows, does not actually like bologna, but he is still too young to separate his preferences from those of his brother’s. His desires, whatever they are, always designed by their relation to those of his family members.
Mavis pulls off her sandal to let some of the trapped sand out. She had drawn a red mark as a demarcation to keep track of where the blurriness begins, just as is her practice for her sons’ bug bites in order to track for spreading infections. The arched red line, circumscribing the flat juncture where her toes meet her foot has begun to go hazy. The ends of her toes she can only make out by squinting but are otherwise translucent, now showing the verdant grass beneath her feet.
Ethan leaves on a business trip to Chicago the following day, grumbling in anticipation of the frigid weather that will greet him there. He goes once a year, his company has a sister office in Chicago, and he complains every time. Mavis calls Ethan a homebody but really it is more the disruption to his routine that irritates Ethan on these trips. In the past, he would video call her from the hotel room after a day of meetings, grouchy about the coffee the smells in the elevator, the expense of valeting his car, his face too close to the screen, strangely alien. In the background Mavis catches a glimpse of a spacious hotel room, tastefully decorated in creams and luxurious greys. The bed’s headboard is a sleek ebony with a plush tufted center. One time, Ethan called her while in the lobby and Mavis could see a polished marble column jutting out beyond Ethan’s right shoulder and the happy, smiling faces of the hotel staff behind the receptionist desk. Mavis tries very hard to be patient on these phone calls.
Mavis plans to feed the kids waffles and pancakes for the three nights Ethan will be away. Anthony and Benny are thrilled and easily sworn to secrecy. Ethan believes in well balanced meals- an abundance of vegetables, a palm sized portion of protein. Most nights, Mavis feels the dinners she prepares are being judged and found lacking. Each dinner is another chance to disappoint either Ethan or the kids and Ethan is less vocal so she usually opts for the starchy foods the kids prefer.
With Ethan out of the house, Mavis can concentrate on the problem of her feet which have, for all intents and purposes, disappeared to just below her ankle. While she has no sensation of her feet still being attached to her body, if she touches them, or the area where they ought to be, with her hands, her fingers register the smooth skin of the dorsal portion of her foot or the rougher calluses if she is touching what once was the bottoms of her feet. She doesn’t want to alarm the kids so she keeps the door closed to her room during her investigations but Anthony, whose bright imagination has conjured forts out of blankets and superheroes out of toothpicks, cannot fathom a scenario in which his presence would not be wanted. He barges into the room on a hunt for a pair of his sneakers.
Mavis sits on her bed with her knees drawn up.
What are you doing? Anthony asks, momentarily distracted from his search.
At the age of ten, Mavis is aware she is entering into a dangerous phase where everything she does will appear weird to her son. There’s a possibility then, that even the truly odd behaviors will get lost in the miasma of everything being labeled as weird.
Do you see my feet? Mavis asks lightly.
Anthony glances down to where Mavis’s feet should be. Ya. Anthony studies her expectantly. So what?
Can you press on my toes?
My back is hurting and I can’t reach them.
Mavis has never complained of back pain but she knows in Anthony’s mind her body is an old decaying thing, and any amount of malfunctioning is well within the realm of possibility.
Anthony pinches her would-be big toe between his thumb and pointer finger and Mavis can feel the comforting pressure like an old friend. Do it again.
Anthony pinches again and this time Mavis notices the shimmering haze below her ankle rising to just past her heel. She swats Anthony’s hand away.
Ouch, Anthony says aggrieved.
Sorry. You were pinching too hard. Mavis swings her legs so they dangle off the edge bed feeling the strange lightness of her missing feet. I think I saw your sneakers by the front door, she calls to Anthony who has already left the room exasperated with his mother’s inexplicable behavior. Mavis tentatively stands up and makes her way across the room to close the door behind him. When she was around Anthony’s age, she had broken her ankle after tripping on a garden hose. She wore a cast for six weeks, and when the cast came off, walking on her foot had felt like walking through powdery snow, every footfall ending a few centimeters beyond what was expected, a sensation very similar to the one she feels now walking on her absent feet.
In the morning, she makes scrambled eggs for the boys who are still pajamaed and bleary eyed from going to bed late. They miss their father who, despite his insistence on their vegetable consumption, is the more patient, more compassionate of their parents. Mavis doesn’t begrudge them this. She would feel the same way if she had to choose between herself and Ethan as a parent.
Mavis is groggy this morning too. Ethan snores loudly when he sleeps, his body making lurid gasping noises that are hard to reconcile with the cheerful, dignified man he is in the morning. And yet, in the absence of his cacophony, Mavis finds she can’t sleep either.
Mavis places the plates of scrambled eggs in front of the boys who are sitting on bar stools by the kitchen island. Instantly, Benny makes a face.
I don’t want that.
But you said you wanted scrambled eggs, Mavis says.
Not these scrambled eggs.
Mavis knows, even as she can’t help but argue, that she will lose this fight. But these are scrambled eggs.
I wanted the other scrambled eggs. The hard ones. Benny pushes away his plate like a dissatisfied patron at a diner.
He wants a hard-boiled egg, Anthony clarifies. He calls hard-boiled eggs, scrambled eggs. Dad knows that.
Once, when she and Ethan had been newly married Mavis had watched as a friend of hers cleaned up the same box of oversized stacking bricks four times. The woman’s three-year-old kept unceremoniously dumping the box on the carpeted floor and walking away as if he had more important things to do than watch his mother clean up his mess. Mavis and her friend had been conversing, sitting cross-legged on the floor and this mother, without pausing in conversation, would simply gather the bright blocks up again and again seemingly completely unperturbed by her Sisyphean task. Tell me we won’t be those kinds of parents, she said to Ethan on the car ride home. If Ethan had responded, she cannot remember now what he said. She only remembers the exact shade of blue in the sky that day, just beyond the windshield, an endless canvas of opaque cerulean.
You will eat the scrambled eggs. Mavis kept her voice measured and firm in an attempt to manufacture authority. That is what you asked for so that is what you have to eat.
Make me the other, Benny counters.
I don’t have any more eggs, Mavis says looking into the fridge. Her words could be a statement of defeat or defiance but Mavis knows it is the former. And she knows Benny knows it too.
She pours Benny a bowl of chocolatey cereal. Ethan will be home tomorrow night and the kids can resume their healthy eating habits then.
The week passes by in a slow progression of hours and minutes. The boys build obstacle courses in the backyard and play board games on the living room floor. Mavis assents to play with them every third request, a calculation that seems fair to her but Anthony and Benny begrudge her hesitancy. They are such good children, Mavis thinks. Smart and good-hearted, and surely better behaved than most. But still, their voices echoing off the walls in the living room, the way they seem to be in every room of the house all at once, Mavis can feel them, the fact of them, their physical bodies and ephemeral needs, mounting in her head, filling up the cool dark spaces like so many grains of sand.
To celebrate Ethan’s return home, Anthony requests they throw a party. Mavis blows up balloons until she feels light-headed while the boys color banners made from printer paper taped together.
In the four days Ethan has been away, Mavis’s legs have become transparent to the knees. Far from making walking more difficult, Mavis finds her movements, if anything, to be more graceful, more like she is drifting about the rooms of the house. And, although the kids do not notice a change in her appearance, Mavis is sure she no longer has an audible footstep. Barefoot, she can move around the house making no sound at all.
Anthony has put together a playlist of songs for the party and Benny wants Mavis to dance with him. Mavis holds his hands and moves around the room to the music.
Can we dance like Daddy does? Benny asks.
How does Daddy dance?
Benny places his feet on top of Mavis’s. Mavis can feel the pressure of Benny’s body weighing down on the tops of her feet even though she cannot see them. To Mavis, it looks as though Benny is floating a few inches off the ground, swaying to the music, swaying in step to her own rhythm.
With the pressure of Benny’s weight on her feet, Mavis can feel the transparency moving up her legs more quickly. Anthony has turned the music on far too loud and the music, a pop song Mavis knows all the words to without ever having consciously listened to it before, saturates the room with its up-tempo beat. Her legs are now completely transparent and her stomach is a hazy outline. Mavis closes her eyes and holds tightly to Benny’s hands. Anthony’s playlist is long and if they choose, they can dance like this for hours.
Malka Daskal received her master’s degree from Columbia University and was the recipient of the Maricopa Artist of Promise Award in 2016. She is currently a fiction reader for New England Review. Her work has appeared in The Bookends Review, Passages, and The Traveler and is forthcoming in Kind Writers, december Magazine, and The Dalhousie Review. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and two sons.