Four Memories of Breath

Rebecca Brown

My friend was a very new father. His wife had only recently returned to work, and he works at home like me so he asked me to be with the baby while he went out for a run. When I got there the child was asleep upstairs. They had one of those speaker things so that if the kid cried upstairs you could hear it downstairs, so I could just hang out downstairs and read or whatever, my friend whispered. Everything was still so new we whispered whenever the baby was asleep, but I wanted to be with the baby. My friend went out for his run and I went upstairs to watch the baby. The baby was small. I mean, he was big for a baby, huge for a baby his age, but he was a baby—that kind of small. His crib was a rocker his grandfather had made. I had sat by the crib before with his parents and Chris, and we had talked with the baby and played with him, but this was the first time I was alone with him and I was alone with him asleep.
I squatted over the crib and looked as quietly as I could. His nostrils were very, very small. His hands were small and pink, his fingers the size of the ends of tiny carrots. I knew they were soft—I had touched them—and they had little tiny nails. This was before he’d ever had his nails cut; he was still perfect. His nostrils were very, very small and very slightly moving. I could see his lips move. On his upper lip was a little dot of saliva. I could see his body breathing. Did I hear an infant pull of air, did I hear it move across his lips, into his mouth, into the inside and alive of him? I saw his fat baby belly pajama top go up and down and up and down. His fingers relaxed and flexed slightly. Was he remembering being in his mother’s body? Was he already dreaming?

One time Ben came up to see us without Kim and the kids. He and Chris spent the day together while I stayed home to work. When they got back that evening, they were pooped, so we were just going to make an easy dinner and eat in front of a video. It must have been a Miyazaki. Chris had taken Howl’s Moving Castle down to Ben and Kim and the grandkids a while back so they were all fans now too, and now Chris and Ben and I were sitting on the futon with our legs stretched out in front of us facing the TV screen. Nobody’d been saying much but suddenly it felt different. I looked to my left and saw Ben’s eyes were closed. His head was tilted slightly back and his mouth was slightly open. Next to him, on the other side, was Chris, his mother. Her eyes were closed, her head was tilted slightly back and her mouth was slightly open. I know the sound of Chris’ breath, and the sound of her when she’s falling asleep, then sleeping. I listened to her breathing and I heard, next to her, the breath of her sleeping son. I thought of her watching her son sleep when he was young. I thought of him being inside her once, and then of the way she watched him sleep, the way someone who loves you does. I listened to the sleep of her and of the grown man, now a father, who once had been the baby in her womb.

Chris and I sat by Donna’s bed. Donna was breathing but not very deeply and not very much. We were sitting and waiting for her to stop.
I don’t know if we saw the last or even if there was a last. But at some point we realized she’d stopped. I remember looking at her pulse, not seeing a last of that, or feeling a last, except there must have been because then there was none.
Her hand was cool. We’d felt it getting cooler and felt the feeling go from it, her grip or response then her lack of grip and cooling. But still we kept on holding it, as if there was still her to hold.
A widower friend had taken Dave for a walk because sometimes a person wants not to die in front of the person their death will hurt the most. When David came back I met him before he came into the room. “She’s gone,” I said. He nodded and he said, “I know.”
We came in the room and Chris stood up and Dave sat by the bed and took the hand of his now dead wife and we left him alone in the room.
When he came from the room he said to us, “she’d already been gone a while.” He said it as if it would lessen it. Perhaps for a while it did.

It rained in the night. We heard it on the roof of the tent. It was like we could hear the single drops. They came not only from the sky but also from the trees.
In the morning Chris woke up early. She was already by the river when I got up and opened the sleeve of the tent and looked. She sat by the river and dipped her hands and then her hands and a cloth into the river and onto her. She was washing herself with the water. The sun was coming up and there was mist rising off the river. It rose from the land and other things and the rain that had fallen the night before was turned back into mist or steam or something more or less than it. I looked and saw as if, for a while, the breathing of the world.

Originally published in Moss: Volume One.
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