The Writing Disorder



New Fiction


by Taryn Hook

       “When the Kleen-A-Karpet guy tried to wipe the blood up, Mutti chased him out the door with Vati’s old cleaver,” said Ilse. “Thank God the guy didn’t speak German. Ignorance is bliss when your balls are about to be chopped off.”
      As she held the phone to her ear, Maura rubbed a cramp in her neck. “I can’t believe how attached our mother is to that disgusting stain. It’s driven her mad.”
       “I think I’d go nuts too, if I saw my husband of forty years bleed-out onto the carpet like a gutted pig,” said Ilse.
      “A deflated balloon is more like it,” said Maura. “A child’s abandoned toy. Drifting across the deserted streets, captive to the whims of the currents, until finally resting in a rotting landfill….”
      Ilse convulsed with sobs. “Stop, Maura. Stop. You’re making it worse.”
       “Please don’t cry, Ilse. I didn’t mean to make you cry,” said Maura. “The writer in me gets carried away sometimes. Please stop. I can’t stand it. You sound so pathetic, especially when you make those gaspy-wheezy noises into the receiver. You know very well that the cancer was eating Vati alive. It was high time for the great Friedrich Vanguard to leave this pathetic little planet.”
      Ilse blew her nose, her voice calmer afterwards. “You’re right, Maura. I’m actually happy for Vati. No more pain. No more chemotherapy sickness. Just peace with the Lord.”
      “Good girl,” said Maura. “That’s the faith-filled sister I know and love. And now that Vati is at rest, we must concentrate on the living - which means taking care of our mother. I’m positive that is exactly what Vati was trying to say before he died. And that’s exactly what we are going to do.”
      “But how, Maura? Mutti is in her own world now and we’re not invited.”
      “Tomorrow night at Sunday dinner we’ll confront her. Sort of like a drug intervention. We’ll remind her that Friedrich Vanguard was a proud man. A man who would want her to move on with her life, instead of spending every waking moment staring at the bloody particles of his last moments. Once that stain is gone, Mutti will put the countless hospital visits, vomit splotched floors, and spurting bodily fluids far behind her. She’ll remember our father as he once was. Tall. Handsome. Strong.” Maura laughed. “And arrogant. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about.”


      Six months ago, Friedrich Vanguard was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. “I’m gonna beat diss ting,” he told anyone who would listen, his words accentuated by his staccato German accent. So convincing was his conviction that everyone believed he would go on living in much the same way redwood trees do for thousands of years. His constant assertions of near-immortality were also supported by his invincible appearance. With his long white hair and firm oak walking staff, he resembled a Viking warrior ready to pillage unsuspecting coastal villages. A man immune to the vagaries of death. But, even for Friedrich Vanguard, death was the great pillager in the end.
      Normally, his muscles appeared affixed to his steel-like bones with a soldering iron. Yet, in only three weeks, the Grim Reaper pulled them off like weak putty, contorting them into lax, rubbery strings, hanging loosely off his arms like old drapes. Hiding in his room, he refused to see his friends, barely allowing his family glimpses of his newly debilitated state — the countenance of a man clearly bound for skeltedom.
      A few weeks before dying, Friedrich reached for a bowl on the top shelf of the kitchen. So brittle were his bones that his collarbone broke in two like a dry twig. From then on, he wore a sling, almost entirely dependent on Mutti for even the simplest of tasks, such as turning on the TV or pouring a glass of water.
      Still determined to “beat diss ting,” Friedrich subsequently consented to a relentless round of chemotherapy followed by radiation. Unfortunately, any gains made by this treatment were negated by the havoc it wrought on his surrounding tissues and organs. In particular, he developed a bleeding ulcer, undetected by his doctors.
      One morning at two a.m., he got out of bed, teetered for a moment, then collapsed like a tree felled by a logger. Mutti could only watch helplessly as the blood from the ulcer, exploding inside him like Mount Vesuvius, gushed out his every orifice onto the stark white carpet. At the hospital, doctors gave him a half an hour left to live at most. Confounding even the most distinguished specialists, however, he survived for another three days.
      “Anika, my wife,” he moaned in his semi-conscious state, “meine schöne Persephone. I have something to tell you. Something vitally important.”
      “Yes, yes, my darling,” she said, blotting his feverish brow with a damp cloth. “My proud Pluto. I am here. Tell me your secret. Unburden yourself. And then rest Friedrich, my dearest, rest.”
      But when Friedrich tried to speak, his words were oddly garbled. The more he tried to impart his crucial message, the less sense he made. And the less sense he made, the more he thrashed wildly around on urine-soaked sheets, blood running into his catheter bag like a poisoned merlot.
      “A pen, Mutti,” Maura said, “give Vati a pen and paper.” Immediately upon receiving these items, he sat upright, furiously writing while rambling incoherently with cracked, mucous imbued lips. Then, Friedrich Vanguard lay back down, closed his eyes, and passed from this world forever.
      On the paper, instead of the cogent manifesto of the once indomitable Friedrich Vanguard, was a phrase no one could decipher:


      After her husband’s death, Anika Vanguard protected his belongings like a wild bear protecting her newborn cubs. Under her watchful eye, every item he ever owned remained exactly in the same place and in precisely the same condition as the day he died.
      His clothes hung like patient ghosts lurking in the closet. In the bathroom, his razor perched precariously on the rim of the porcelain sink, doomed to its circus-like balancing act for all time. Nearby, rested his tortoise shell comb, its bristles still interwoven with strands of white hair. Even his toothbrush, graced with a substantial glob of paste, rested in the round hole of its container, like an alert sentry waiting for its owner to return from a mundane errand, such as answering the phone or retrieving the daily paper, before vigilantly attending once more to his daily personal hygiene routine.
      However, Friedrich’s used combs and old shoes were nothing when compared to the one item Mutti treated like the mummified finger of a saint. Burn his moth-eaten clothes and throw away his crusty brown diapers. But try to touch a single molecule of the bloodstain where the six-foot man had fallen, and she sounded the horn of a vicious and unrelenting war. “By hiring that creep to invade my house without my consent and butcher my rug, you might as well be taking your father from me again,” she said when Maura and Ilse confronted her about the Kleen-A-Karpet debacle. She then turned her back on them as if they had uttered something horribly blasphemous like announce, “there is no God,” or maintain, “Heaven is but a myth constructed by the lonely, yearning minds of man.”


      The next day, exactly as planned, Maura and Ilse arrived at Mutti’s house for Sunday dinner at five p.m., ready to stage their bloodstain clean-up intervention. However, when Mutti opened the door after six knocks, neither immediately recognized their mother. Yesterday, she possessed ruddy cheeks resembling ripe apples. Today, the person standing before them looked more like a frail old woman than a robust hausfrau. Her beautiful golden hair, which she usually wore in a bun, was gray and matted, much like a scarecrow’s random straw brains. Normally a bright pale blue, her eyes lacked luster, now rimmed by sunken, black semi-circles. And her fingernails, ordinarily manicured perfectly without exception, were so long that they curled a bit at the ends like a corkscrew.
      “I miss him, Maura,” said Mutti, her face like that of a famine victim pleading for nourishment, unable to find even the tiniest morsel. “Everyone keeps telling me time heals all wounds. Yet, for me, time is a cruel bulldozer re-excavating my wounds every minute of every agonizing day. Ach du Meine! What am I to do without your Vati? Never apart a day for forty years.” She grabbed Maura’s forearms. “Not a day, you know…”
      “Don’t worry, Mutti. Ilse and I are here for you, isn’t that right, Ilse?”
      “That’s exactly right,” said Ilse. “We’ll always be here for you, Mutti. Now why don’t we all go into the kitchen while the bratwurst cooks and have a nice chat. The fire will take the winter chill away and make us all feel better.”


      The centerpiece of the kitchen was a huge fireplace rimmed by an imposing brass bas-relief of Pluto, god of the underworld, seducing the lovely Persephone. Underneath the mantel, a Latin inscription read in part: “Meus decorus puella, adveho me” or, roughly translated into English, “My beautiful girl, come with me.”
      Even though Maura had heard it dozens of times, there was something about the way Vati, an ancient history professor, told the tale of Pluto and Persephone that made it fresh and interesting every time. Sitting in his high backed leather chair by the blazing fireplace, sucking on his cherry wood pipe, he enchanted her with tales from other dimensions, other times, and fantastical realms long forgotten in the corridors of pre-history. Alive once again in the gleam of his blazing dark eyes.
      “From the depths of the barren underworld,” he always began in his gravely baritone voice, “Pluto saw lovely Persephone frolicking in the sun-striped meadows of the mortal domain and was instantly besotted. Over the centuries, dating has not changed so very much. Just like today, men asked women to dinner. Accordingly, Pluto invited Persephone to a magnificent feast. Before her date, Persephone’s mother, the goddess Demeter, sternly warned her not to eat or drink anything while in Pluto’s lair. However, like any self-respecting beauty, Persephone wanted to please her host. So, to placate him, she consumed a single pomegranate seed.”
      At this point in the story, Friedrich Vanguard always paused, shaking his finger in Maura and Ilse’s faces, while giving them his signature piercing look. “Because Persephone ignored her mother’s advice and ate the pomegranate seed, she was doomed to live with Pluto in the underworld all winter long as his captive queen. Thankfully, though, she returned to Earth each spring, allowed to visit her mother, Demeter.” With one last drawn-out puff on his pipe, Vati would then inquire: “And what is the moral of this story, my two beautiful daughters?”
      In unison, Maura and Ilse answered, “always listen to and obey Mutti.”
      “Damn straight,” he would say, thumping a booted foot on the hard wood floor. “Damn straight.”


      As Maura and Ilse escorted Mutti into the kitchen, intending to discuss the future of Vati’s bloody remnants, Maura detected an unpleasant odor floating above and apart from the thick buttery smell of the browning potatoes and juicy bratwurst. It didn’t take her long to discover the source. Encircled by hungry flies, no less than ten large trash bags leaned against the back door. Some contained maggots, which curled their hungry heads in and out of plastic holes, greedily munching on decomposing pork chops adjacent to enormous cockroaches with exoskeletons resembling titanium.
      “Mutti, why don’t you let me take those bags to the garbage can for you,” said Maura.
      Mutti’s blue eyes flashed black. “For forty years, your father never had a single complaint about my housekeeping skills. And now you, who couldn’t make a bed if her life depended on it, come into my house and criticize my cleanliness? You have some nerve, meine insolent Tochter, some nerve indeed.”
      Maura squeezed Mutti’s thin shoulders. “I didn’t mean to insult you, Mutti. This is a big house. And the weather has been terrible this winter. It’s just that … that without Vati here, I thought….”
      Mutti put her head in her hands, collapsing into Vati’s red leather armchair by the fireplace, more hunched and feeble than ever. “I’m sorry, Maura. You’re a good girl. A good, good girl. My grief is turning me into a mean person. It hangs over me like a thick presence waiting to descend and swallow me up. I can’t escape it, I can’t bargain with it. And I can’t destroy it.” She clutched the bottom of Maura’s dress, staring up at her like a lost child. “Help me … please.”
      “That’s exactly why we are here tonight, Mutti,” said Maura. “Ilse and I have been thinking. Why don’t you let use clean the house tomorrow. No disrespectful Kleen-A-Karpet strangers this time. And afterwards, we’ll plan a trip to Frankfurt. Just the three of us. Aunt Frey has been begging us to visit, and I’m certain a change of scenery will give you a much needed breath of fresh air.”
      Mutti dropped the hem of Maura’s skirt, pausing to examine the bas-relief of Persephone surrounding the mantel. Wide-eyed, Persephone stared at the single ruby red pomegranate seed Pluto held in the palm of his muscular hand. Then, casting her eyes towards the floor, Mutti straightened the wrinkled cherries on her apron with wrinkled fingers. “Yes, yes, you girls are right. This existence is purgatory itself. I feel like I’m dying. Tomorrow, we will scrub every last inch of this house. It is time. High time.”


      In preparation for the cleanup the next day, Ilse and Maura spent the night at Mutti’s house. As Maura headed to bed after dinner, the moonlight streaming through a frost-spotted window illuminated a shadow sliding underneath the doorjamb of Mutti and Vati’s bedroom — somewhat like an enormous, elongated roof rat. Her heart beating like a drum in the Congo at midnight, Maura flung the door wide open while simultaneously flipping on the light switch. But nothing was there. No mice. No rats. No swarm of hungry rodents hanging off the drapes, chewing holes in the bedspread, running amok. Nothing that is, except she … and it.
      And it — the stain — was different than Maura remembered. Rather than a shapeless blob, it resembled an ancient Roman torso affixed to a museum pole. The kind, which had no arms, legs…or heads. Perhaps even more curiously, however, was the stain’s condition. Rather than a faded maroon color, as one would expect two-week old blood to look like, it was bright red. In fact, Maura could swear — swear — that it was shiny. Slick and shiny as a fire engine coated with fresh paint. Leaning down, she quickly swiped her fingertip across the top. Wet! The grooves of her fingerprint were wet and red! Once Maura’s heart dropped back down from the moon into her chest, she laughed. Of course, the stain was damp. Before Mutti tried to transform the unfortunate Kleen-A-Karpet workmen into a eunuch, he started to steam clean the rug. Naturally, it wasn’t dry yet.
      Maura turned her attention to the center of the stain where a crucifix, a candle, and a single white lily lay. A lovingly adorned grave, sans a headstone, plot, or painstakingly trimmed grass. And yet, most definitely a burial plot of sorts. After all, millions of Friedrich Vanguard’s DNA helixes remained trapped in the carpet fibers, much like human flesh trapped in the cool, dark earth of a graveyard.
      As Maura continued to stare at what was left of the once larger-than-life Friedrich Vanguard, she recalled a childhood vacation long ago. Driving in the Rib Mountain State Park in Wisconsin, her father accidentally hit and killed a large buck. A magnificent creature with velvet antlers, disjointed and twisted by the side of an uncaring concrete freeway. The white snow, beautiful and pure, contrasted against the copious rivers of blood — which were also strangely beautiful yet, at the same time, were the destroyers of beauty — struck Maura quite deeply that day. Being so young, she could not articulate her epiphany, and thus, had no other emotional outlet but to cry. Tears which took her parents hours to quench. And now, once again, she cried just as profusely and plaintively as she did on that confusing and terrible day so long ago.
      But just as abruptly as her tears started, they stopped. In one definitive motion, Maura leapt right into the middle of the stain, crushing the lily, sending the crucifix and candle tumbling to opposite sides of the room. “I REFUSE TO LET MY IMAGINATION GET THE BETTER OF ME,” she screamed, dragging her shoes across the carpet as if extinguishing the butts of several stubborn cigarettes. “You do not remind me of my father in any way, shape, or form. And you never will. You are not sacred to me, stain. AND, TOMORROW, YOUR ASS IS GETTING DOUSED WITH CLOROX!”
      And with that, Maura turned on her heels, flicked the light switch off, and walked out of the room.


      “Quick, follow me! You won’t believe it until you see it for yourself,” said Ilse poking her head in Maura’s bedroom door the next morning. Putting on her robe, Maura followed Ilse to the kitchen. The night before, the room looked like a severe violation of the sanitation code. But now, every greasy stain, every decaying bit of worm covered food, every moldy, green rag — gone. Replaced with gleaming black granite countertops and the fresh smell of lemon-scented cleanser. In fact, so shiny was the floor, one could probably lick it and obtain a partial dose of all the daily recommended multivitamins. Even the bags of garbage and their multitude of munching insect hosts had vanished.
      Mutti’s appearance was also altered. Looking as if she had gained twenty pounds in one evening, her cheeks were their customary plump, rosy color. Her hair, blonde again, was carefully braided in a meticulous bun. And painted a delicate shell pink, her oval nails no longer resembled curly fusilli.
      After breakfast, a jovial affair, Mutti led Maura and Ilse into her bedroom and showed them an old trunk — a relic from Vati’s immigration to Wisconsin during World War II — in which she had lovingly packed every last one of his clothes. Next to it, Mutti’s traveling trunk, was filled to the brim with her belongings.
      “Why did you also pack, Mutti?” asked Maura.
      Mutti carefully pushed aside a strand of wayward hair from her forehead. “I have some things that need to go to the Goodwill as well. What better time than to combine my castaways with Vati’s. We’ll both go down in glory to the five and dime store together, eh?”
      “That makes sense, Mutti,” said Ilse, “but what about ... about...”
      Mutti waved her hand dismissively. “Oh my silly Ilse, of course I haven’t forgotten about the stain. I promised I would clean it up, and I will … tomorrow.”
      “But, Mutti,” said Maura.
      “Ah, Ah, Ah, girls. You have my word that I will clean it up. And Anika Vanguard always keeps her word. Now go back to your own homes and get some rest. Come by at noon tomorrow and no more stain. You shall see.”


      That night, Maura dreamt she heard a strange noise coming from Mutti’s bedroom, much like baby pigs suckling on their mother’s teats. Slowly opening the door, Maura looked inside. Naked, Mutti lay face down on the stain. Legs spread wide, fingers twirling between her thighs, she pressed her lips deep into the carpet. A wide, open-mouthed kiss - the source of the sucking noise. Upon hearing Maura’s gasp, Mutti abruptly looked up, tears and fresh blood smudged all over her face and décolletage. Although she stared right at Maura, her eyes lacked even the slightest mother-like quality. Rather, they looked angry: like an angry ghoul who, after discovering an unwelcome witness to a sacred ritual, was designing an awful fate for the unfortunate intruder.
      Hurrying out the door and through the kitchen on her way out of the house, Maura glanced at the Latin phrase on the mantel beneath the bas-relief of Pluto and Persephone. Quickly expanding, the phrase got larger and larger, until it obscured everything else in the room.
      And then, the Latin words transformed into German….


      When Maura woke up, she did not bother to change out of her pajamas before jumping into her car and speeding towards Mutti’s house. Arriving just as the sun rose over the frozen winter mountaintops, the front door was wide open, the hallway dark as a crypt. Rushing inside, a cold blast of stale air assaulted her, as if she was entering an ancient Egyptian tomb unopened for eons. No longer did the grandfather clock tick away the hours. Absent was the dog’s insistent bark at the back door. Nor did the radio upstairs blare Mutti’s favorite morning news show. It was as if thousands of days and nights of love, laughter, sorrow, and joy never existed here. Nothing but a shell. A dry dictionary description of a home: “the social unit formed by a family living together.” But neither social, nor a unit no longer.
      Maura ran from room to room calling for Mutti, hoping for an answer, rewarded with nothing in return except the echoes of her desperate please bouncing around the empty walls. Running until her legs lost all feeling, calling until her vocal chords failed her — and until only one room remained. The room Maura loathed seeing. Hated the idea of confronting. But, confront it, she must. And so, half crawling, half-scuttling like an exposed crab on tide pool rocks, Maura somehow made it to Mutti and Vati’s bedroom. Before looking inside, she repeatedly vomited on the pristine white rug, until nothing but stomach acid remained, burning her tender throat tissues on its way towards ejection. Finally, she opened her mouth, front teeth spotted with chunks of bile and thick orange spittle, and took a deep, unsettling breath, flinging the door wide open.
      Muti and Vati’s heavy trunks — both gone. However, that was not the most glaring absence. Not by a mile. The stain … the stain was gone. No, more than gone. Enigmatically absent, as if it had never been there at all. Once sprawled out in all its gory red magnificence, the spot where it had embedded itself in the carpet was now as white as a picket fence. No demarcation to separate the stagnant molecules of Friedrich Vanguard from the rest of the dense wool threads. Not the slightest hint that the carpet had ever been any color other than that of a schoolgirl’s first Communion dress.
      Noticing a crumpled piece of paper in the center of the room, Maura managed to reach it on rubber legs, retrieving it with numb fingers; it was Vati’s original, unintelligible deathbed note. Yet, to Maura, it now made perfect, horrifying sense. During his last moments, Vati translated the entire Latin phrase on the mantelpiece into German. And when the words, fused together by the shaking hand of the dying Friedrich Vanguard, were separated out, they clearly read: “Kommen Sie mit mir meine schöne Jungfrau. Sie sind mit mir für immer verbunden. Und für immer sollen Sie in meiner Umarmung bleiben.”
      It was the phrase Pluto used to seduce Persephone into the underworld: “Come with me, my beautiful girl. You belong with me forever ... and forever shall you remain in my embrace....”

      Taryn Hook's work has appeared in publications such as Hadrosaur Tales, Zahir,, Malevolence, Steel Caves, and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Short Story Contest (second place). She graduated with a Departmental Citation for Outstanding Undergraduate Achievement in English Literature from the University of California, Davis. Recently, she was a guest judge for the Stiletto Women's Fiction Contest.

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