Bed­time story ‘Breathe’ by Imo­gen Her­mes Gowar

The Simple Things - - MISCELLANY - A short story by IMO­GEN HER­MES GOWAR

“Close your eyes,” I say, “and don’t breathe.”

Han­nah, Ab­bie, Ad­die and Mercy stand in a line with their hands clasped in front of them and their faces screwed up. Our lit­tle broth­ers are piled on the bed with their thumbs in their mouths and their fingers up their noses; when they see my tall gold can of hair spray they whisk the blan­kets over their heads, just tufts of hair and dirty toes pok­ing out. I shake the can once to be professional and twice be­cause I like the sound.

The bed­room in the mo­torhome is dark and poky, with a shiny grey cur­tain you pull across to hide the kitchen. I tread on my sis­ters’ toes as I cir­cle them – Han­nah, tall up to my shoul­der now; Ab­bie and Ad­die in their best dresses; sweet Mercy try­ing so hard to stay still her eye­brows quiver – and swoosh a cloud of spray around each of their heads. They look so sober with their closed eyes and dropped chins, I imag­ine I’m giv­ing a sacra­ment.

When I’m done, I lift my arm and cir­cle the can once around my own head: psh­hht. It puts a sweet, gluey taste in the back of my throat. We’re all quiet with our eyes scrunched, and then the boys fling their blan­kets off, shriek­ing, and the girls blink and cough. They start chat­ter­ing all at once, grab­bing my hands and clothes; the girls on tip­toes at the mir­ror – “Leah! Leah, put the pink lip stuff on me” – “Leah, where’s my neck­lace?” Since Becca got mar­ried and Mother’s so busy with the new baby, I’m the one they all want, and when they aren’t climbing on my lap or press­ing their hot faces to my cheek, or peel­ing back my fingers to get their hand inside mine, their voices go on and on, all ques­tions and wants and se­crets. Even when they aren’t touch­ing me, it’s like their hands are all over me.

Our fam­ily min­istry is to visit churches and sing. Dad drives; Mother plays the gui­tar; I keep the kids in order. We were gifted the mo­torhome, and it’s a bless­ing but it’s not meant for so many peo­ple, let alone their pri­vate thoughts, or their un­brushed teeth. The boys mon­key about on the seats, and the bin swells with nap­pies, but when we walk on stage, all ten of us, Mother car­ry­ing the baby, amaze­ment al­ways rus­tles through the con­gre­ga­tion. For­give me, but I feel proud then. We line up in height order to show how blessed we are: I join hands with Han­nah and mar­vel at the way our voices fill the room. After­wards there’s a col­lec­tion for us, and a buf­fet.

To­day we’ve been in­vited to a big, glass mod­ern-look­ing place, a con­gre­ga­tion of five hun­dred on the edge of a potato field. The earth is silky and the flat land fades into the big­gest sky I ever saw. I de­cide we’ll do our warm-up in the car park, and when I open the mo­torhome’s door, the kids rush out like pup­pies, chas­ing loops in the dust, their arms spread against the milky-blue sky.

I call them to stand in a wide semi-cir­cle, no­body touch­ing any­body. We breathe in, breathe out. “Imag­ine a big space inside your tummy,” I say, and the lit­tle kids clasp their hands over their ribs. “Imag­ine you’re hol­low like a vi­o­lin, and your voice fills it right up.”

They all start at once, their voices crowd­ing in on me, but I shout, “Quiet! No talk­ing!” We hear the cries of birds tum­bling in that huge sky. “Just breathe.”

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