women. writers.

Fiction: "Aileas Muse and the Angel" by Lily Iona MacKenzie

Why Aileas Muse saw the light at 95
I didn’t recognize my hand. It clutched the white hospital sheet. Nails like claws. Skin transparent. Bulging blue veins. Age was getting away with murder, leaving me just the essentials: two feet, two hands, a head, and a body.
What more could I want?
Some had much less than that.
I saw an elderly one-legged man in the hallway earlier that day. At least I still have my legs, and they are good ones. Sturdy. Shapely. Most of all shapely.
I had a perm the day before surgery and painted my fingernails poppy red. I didn’t want to meet my maker without fixing up a little. It was the least I could do. A nurse told me to take off the polish so the staff could read my oxygen after the operation. What if I don’t have any oxygen, I said and cackled.
The same nurse also told me to remove my rings and other jewelry. Even my watch. It was just as well I couldn’t see what time it was. The years seem like beads on a string. But the string’s broken, and the beads are scattered far and wide. I don’t know where the time has gone. Everything blurs together as if I were underwater.
Cindy, my youngest daughter, took my things for safe keeping. She didn’t leave much for the thieving hands of those who prey on the sick and dying. Human ravens or crows. I don’t know why my belongings might attract a stranger’s interest. These thieves don’t care about me. Only my family does. Or so they say. All gathered now—Mabel, my oldest girl, staring out the window as if she could read the future in the tree leaves. Cindy, leafing through a movie magazine. My two boys exchanging glances now and then. A deathwatch.
They tried to let on they weren’t worried. I did too, but I’m no fool. I knew I could die during surgery. At 95, my chances are slim—not even 50/50. Cancer of the colon. A tumor the size of an orange. I managed to hide it from the doctors all those years, daring death. I didn’t want to admit it had any power over me. After all, I outlived all the men in my life—husbands, lovers. Even my four brothers.
So I put my life in the Lord’s hands. That was all I could do. God could decide if He wanted me yet or not. Or not, I hoped. Maybe I shouldn’t have fixed up in advance and made myself so attractive to Him.
The gurney began to roll down the hallway, its wheels squeaking. This could be my last ride. I didn’t like making my final journey to the tune of a squawking wheel instead of a wailing bagpipe. It sounded like a screeching violin, not the heavenly chorus I expected to hear. I should have been riding on something new and streamlined, not something that suffered like me from rust and age.
I sang Scottish songs all the way to the operating room and waved at people, pretending I was the Queen. My kids traipsed behind. I’ve sung these songs since I was a girl. They’re my oldest friends, all I have left. Closer to me than my family even. They live deep in my blood and remind me of the Scottish highlands where I grew up.
Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
‘Onward,’ the sailors cry!
Carry the lad that’s born to be king,
Over the sea to Skye.

Cindy joined in the chorus, but I didn’t like it when her voice drowned out mine. She grabbed my hand and gripped it. My songs and my family are the only things that matter to me any more. My young surgeon, Dr. MacLean, is a good looking guy. But men aren’t important now, though a handsome man can still turn my head. Not for long though. I can’t face putting to rest one more husband. I buried all four of mine some time ago. Not all at once, of course.
Two young orderlies—one male, one female—guided my gurney to the operating room. Their bleached hair stood up straight in stiff spikes, as if someone had spooked them. It made me think of whipped egg whites, waiting to be folded into an angel food cake. As a young woman, I thought if I made enough angel food cakes and ate them, I might become an angel one day. Instead, I turned into a butterball.
Angels have been on my mind since I was a girl in Skye. All my family believed in them. The whole of Skye did. I liked the idea that angels could live in more than one world at once—flitting back and forth between the earth and who knows where. I often feel I’m an angel and have another life. I’m not just this sack of bones, waiting to die. This other self will go on after I’ve kicked the bucket.
At times this self seems close enough to reach out and touch. I call it my angel and catch glimpses of it when I turn my head quickly. It’s hard to pin down, though, just as my shadow is. I even wanted to name my last child Angelina, except the baby turned out to be a boy.
I don’t think lack of courage kept me from grabbing hold of my angel. I had plenty of that. It took courage to leave for Canada in my mid-teens. It took courage to give birth to six children and only four survived. It took courage to live again after my husbands’ deaths. It took courage to reach 95.
No, it wasn’t courage I needed. It was something else.
I don’t think I ever left Skye, not really. I’m still there, waiting for my life to open in front of me. It may be why I’ve lived so long, something in me still waiting, refusing to die. Yet.
I woke in the night. Someone was gripping my hand. Was it God? Was I in heaven?
It’s okay, Mum. It’s all over.
All over? Then I had died.
You came through the surgery. They got everything.
The words swam around in my head like minnows, wriggling and confusing me. Surgery? I thought I was in Skye, waiting for Grannie to wake me for school. Grannie is holding my hand, just the way she did at night before I went to sleep. Grannie would sit with me and stroke my hand until I felt myself slipping away. I didn’t want to wake up now. I wanted to stay in Skye, listening to Grannie crooning
Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
‘Onward,’ the sailors cry!
Carry the lad that’s born to be king,
Over the sea to Skye.
I heard someone groan. It was me.
It’s okay, Mum. Don’t try to move yet.
Mum? Who was talking? Who was Mum? My eyes fluttered open, and I saw Cindy sitting there, leaning over the bed.
No, dear, it’s Cindy. Your daughter. You did wonderfully. The cancer’s all gone!
The cancer was gone and at 95 I beat death?
From that moment on, I devoted myself to God. Forever more I would be a good Christian woman, not the way I once was. I wouldn’t swear. I wouldn’t drink. I wouldn’t lust after men or think other ungodly thoughts. I would treat everyone with Christian charity. I would be the most perfect creature God has ever made—outside of Jesus. And maybe Mary.
I’d show him I deserved to live.

How Aileas Muse turned 200
You’re not 200, Grannie, one of my grandsons said today. I didn’t want to believe him because he’s my most handsome grandson and he loves his granny.
He claims he overheard me telling someone at the place where I live I was turning 200 on my next birthday. Why do they call it a nursing home? I haven’t sucked at my mother’s teat since I was a baby.
I spat out, You should mind your own business, and stared at the parrot in its cage, his beak wrapped around a wire. We were in the big room that’s filled with plants and has water spurting out of a fountain.
ONE HUNDRED, Grannie, he said. Not two hundred. You’ll be 100 on June 16.
I told him he didn’t have to yell at me. I could hear him just fine. And my vision is also still good for an old bird. I see well enough to notice the mark on his neck that some girl made. We called them hickeys in my day. I pretended I didn’t spot it.
I have to admit I’m relieved not to be 200. I can’t believe how young I feel now. I’ve shed 100 years overnight.
Still, two hundred has a nice ring to it. How many people can say they’re 200? I don’t know how I got that number in my head. I told it to everyone I saw. Most of the old-timers here just nodded and said, Two hundred. That’s a real accomplishment.
I thought so too. Now I’ve been robbed of 100 years by my own kin. But I also learned that people will believe just about anything. It’s amazing. Me included. I was taken in by my own story. My father always said I had a way with words, just like him.
Things that go bump in the night
I was looking for one of my favorite sweaters and in walked my roommate wearing it, bold as can be. I said That’s my sweater you’re wearing. She gave me a withering look with those watery grey eyes of hers and just wrapped the sweater more tightly around herself. Red’s a bad color for her. She looks like a fire engine in it.
She’s a real sicky they say, though she’s not much more than 70. She has something that starts with A. Altz……
I hope it isn’t catching.
I’ve never known a woman who curses the way she does. Just like a stevedore. Everyone can hear her. What a ruckus. I wouldn’t repeat the things she says. Sometimes she wakes me in the middle of the night with her yakking. I don’t know who she’s talking to, but she’d go on like that for hours if this good-looking young man from Pakistan didn’t come in and quiet her down.
And it isn’t just my roommate and the old fart across the way that raises cane at night. It’s a regular zoo here. You’d think there were a whole pack of cats on the prowl every night. It reminds me of the howling and yowling that go on when cats are in heat. Hardly a night goes by when I’m not wakened from the racket.
I’ve told my other daughter about it, but she thinks I’m making it all up. I’m not! She doesn’t know the half of it. On another night, I woke from a deep sleep and saw my roommate pacing up and down, wearing only a blouse. Not even any panties. What a sight! But not for sore eyes. She doesn’t have as good a figure as I do, even at my age.
She pulled everything out of her dresser and piled it all on her bed—a whole mountain of clothes. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then she started on my drawers, emptying them too. I was still pretty groggy. At first, I thought I was dreaming. But I wasn’t. I pulled on the emergency cord. It took forever for someone to show up. A pretty young oriental girl. She was no match for my roommate, so she came back with one of the men. The two of them put away all those clothes and managed to get the woman back into bed. But not without a lot of cussing and carrying on.
I’ve stayed out of my roommate’s way since I saw her deck another man who lives here. This guy she plowed in the jaw wasn’t doing anything to her. Reading the paper down in the sunroom. Minding his own business. Maybe she didn’t like his looks. Before you know it, he was on the floor, his legs spread-eagled. It took three people to get him on his feet again.
I don’t want to wrangle with her under any circumstances.
How my candies got stolen
Strange things go on in this place. One night my bedside light wasn’t working so I couldn’t make out who was roaming around my part of the room. I thought the nurse was checking up on me, so I murmured hello dear and went back to sleep. When I woke in the morning, the man who lives across the hall was in bed with me—naked! I don’t know what he was up to in the night. He could have done anything and I wouldn’t have known it. Given me AIDS even.
I threw back the covers and took a good look at him. No bigger than my little finger. Not much he could do with something that size.
I told him Get outta here you dirty beggar.
He scowled, slid out of bed, and stood there like a lost soul. Not much more than a bag of bones. A few grey hairs sticking out of his chest. I almost took pity on him.
But I WANT you, he said.
I don’t care. I don’t want you. I’m a decent woman. I have four kids, five grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. I don’t need any more dependents.
I was really riled up at being treated like a loose woman. I didn’t want my reputation ruined. I’m a good Christian now, and I don’t go for hanky panky. Not any more. Not since I turned 95 and saw the light.
He just stared at me with that pathetic face of his. He looks like one of those basset hounds, eyes drooping. Ears hanging around his shoulders. Unshaven.
I saw him today, lurking outside my door, peering into the room. He was wearing a plaid shirt, yellow background, blue stripes. Red suspenders. His baggy trousers soiled and hitched halfway to the sky. I could never go for someone so pitiful looking.
I told the girls at the desk about it when I went down for breakfast. I gave them a real piece of my mind. You should take better care of us old people, I said. I could have had a heart attack, finding a man in bed with me. I didn’t like the smirk on one of the girls’ faces. And I told her so. She should show more respect for her elders.
He’s been stealing my candies ever since I moved into this place. I know it’s him. He watches me from his room across the way. He’s seen me put my mints in the dresser drawer. Now they’re gone. Again. I don’t know how many times it’s happened. My sweets disappearing. Other things too. Underclothes. Nighties. Nothing’s ever where I leave it.

Aileas’ angel made her do it

They brought dogs in today to visit. It made me feel bad to think of all the dogs I’ve had over the years. All of them died, but I guess that’s no surprise.
I fear the only reason I’m still alive is because there’s something wrong with me. Maybe God doesn’t want me. It’s tough to think that your maker might not like what he’s made. I fix myself up everyday. Keep my hair permed and washed. Put on my nicest outfits. Even wear some perfume.
Maybe God doesn’t like the smell of pee.
I try to get the girls to change me regularly so I don’t stink, but you can’t catch everything. It’s no fun not being in control. Things just come from me. Not just pee either. I’ve made some real messes here, but the girls don’t make a fuss over it. They say it’s okay, Aileas. It’s not your fault. Well whose fault is it then? Someone has to be to blame for me causing so much trouble. If it isn’t me then who is it? Some angel? They have to be good for something those angels. Let them take the blame. An angel made me do it.
It was when I started talking about seeing angels and not answering their questions just the way they wanted that they moved me up here with the loonies. Some of the residents were beefing because I drifted into their rooms and opened their drawers. They said I was snooping. I wasn’t snooping. I got lost and kept ending up in the wrong room. No one believes me though. So here I am, sharing a room with someone who has Altz……. I never thought I’d spend my last days like this, sitting around and waiting for someone to remember I’m here.
It makes me wish I’d get cancer again, just so I’d see more of the family. They couldn’t stay away from me when I was in the hospital, on my deathbed. It’s awful to feel like I’m a burden.
They don’t want me in their house any more, peeing on their furniture, stinking the place up. Well death is pretty stinky too. They’ll find out what it’s like. Soon enough.

Aileas’ Angel

I saw him again last night. At first I thought it was the old fart across the hall trying to get in bed with me again. But it wasn’t. I’m sure it was my Angel. I’ve seen it other times too, but it always seemed to be outside, pressing at the window, wanting to get into our room. I didn’t want my roommate to see it. She has enough on her mind, what’s left of it that is. She might take a swipe at my angel and scare it away.
The angel stood at the foot of my bed, watching over me all night. Whenever I woke, I would see it there, kind of blurry, as if I could see through it. I’m sure it isn’t a ghost. I wonder what the difference is between an angel and a ghost. I guess ghosts are the dead returning to haunt us.
The angel doesn’t just visit at night either. I was sitting in the dining room, pushing around the slop on my plate they call food, when I saw it standing behind one of the aides. I told myself I was seeing things. That’s what my grandson says, You’re seeing things, Grannie.
I wasn’t seeing things. It was really there—watching, waiting. It seemed to nod its head at me a couple of times as if to say I see you Aileas. I know you see me. I nodded my head too. Then I looked around to see if anyone noticed. But the staff were all buzzing around, carrying trays and serving drinks. And the residents sat bent over their plates, staring at the dried hunks of chicken floating in some greasy gravy.
The next time I saw it, I was watching TV in the lounge and doing a little knitting. I can’t seem to keep my mind on the stitches anymore, so I end up taking out more than I put in. I’ve always liked working with my hands like this. It allows my mind to wander, and I don’t worry so much. I like the feel of those needles in my hands. They make me feel safer. I could easily stab someone with them if I had to.
I wasn’t thinking of stabbing my angel, though. But sometimes I worry that someone could break into this place and steal my money and jewels. I don’t have much of either anymore. I guess I never did. Still, I don’t want to lose what I have. I’ve already had too many things taken from me. These needles are my only protection, and I keep them close by.
I had just done purl one knit two when I suddenly looked up, feeling as if someone was watching me. Sure enough, someone was. My angel beckoned me to follow, but by the time I had my walker pointed in the right direction, it wasn’t there anymore. Don’t ask me where it went. I looked everywhere I could think of in our room, in the bathroom, in the hallway. Nothing.
I have the feeling, though, that it will be back. It won’t give up on me that easily. And one of these days I might just get up in time to follow wherever it’s going. But not before I finish knitting these booties for my new great, great grandchild. It might take me awhile at the rate I’m going.
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