cathy ulrich

The Hole in the Center of Everything

This is one of those stories where someone drowns. It’s actually eleven someones in this story, eleven of us crossing the frozen-over river in our stocking caps and mittens, holding hands chain-style, and little Elinore on the riverbank calling to us wait for me, wait for me, reaching for the last untaken hand in the moment before the ice breaks.

This is one of those stories where we are shocked by the world falling out from beneath us, where our hands come apart from each other, where we sink and fall, sink and fall. It’s a story where one red mitten snags on tree roots in the water, where Elinore stands on the riverbank and shrieks all eleven of our names, little Elinore, who will always remember how once we were there and then we were not, Elinore who will always feel the hole in the center of everything, the way we felt when the ice cracked open.

This is one of those stories where the town never recovers from our loss, where the school shutters its doors after weeks of the surviving students wearing black armbands and writing sympathy cards to our parents, buses them to a neighboring town over a road that crosses the river, and none of them will look out the window, none of them will even peek. In this story, our parents are always looking at Elinore with such longing, our parents are packing our things away in cardboard boxes, our parents are looking out their bedroom windows at night and seeing only the emptiness of the sky.

This is one of those stories with a haunting. We come like the chiming of bells, like the puff of smoke from an extinguished candle. This story has eleven ghosts, river-damp, drowning-heavy, manifesting in places we always used to go. Elinore sees us, Elinore clasps her hands over her ears at the ringing of bells, Elinore goes to a counselor in the next town over and picks at the nubs on the couch.

This is one of those stories where our parents try to forget and can’t, where they share accusing looks over meals of pot roast and new potatoes, where they say if you, if you, if you. This story has a divorce, has a quiet falling away, has a suicide, has a drinking problem.

This is one of those stories where the red mitten comes unraveled by spring, where the flame of red yarn swims through the river, catching and being let go, catching again. It’s the kind of story where the yarn gets bundle-caught at the mouth of the river, comes apart bit by bit by bit.

This is one of those stories where Elinore is made heavier by our deaths, where she carries the weight of us always ever after, where she says our names again and again, until they become a prayer, a poem, a song. Where she draws pictures of ghosts that look like bells, bells that look like ghosts, where she kicks her feet against the couch at the counselor’s office, where our parents make excuses to come by her house, where they snag their hands on the sleeves of her sweaters when they reach out for her. It is a story where our parents see the moving van in her driveway, where they say you’re leaving too, it seems like everyone is leaving, it seems like everything is falling apart.

This is one of those stories where we fade like the red mitten in its gradual withering away, where we flicker like stars. Where we chime like bells, and then go quiet.