A Cloth House
By Joseph Riippi
The First Time We Were Alone in a Room Together
Mother left me in your room and said, Watch the baby. She did not use your name and I called you by Baby thereafter. She never liked the name our father gave you. And there were many things you never liked, too. That year after you were born you began to almost speak in whines that were something like language, and you whined hardest at me. Almost like you wanted to talk to me. But you couldn't use words yet, would never be able to, and it made you seem less real to me. It made me feel mean, too, which was new. I realized I could decide to be mean, to do mean things. I would say, Mommy, the baby is whining about something. And Em would say, Stop what you're doing, then. And I would stand there and say, Stop whining, Baby, or else I'll be mean to you. You would just look back, not understanding, whining. I never did anything meaner than calling you by Baby. I threatened, but I am not sure what it is I would have done.
The Things in Your Room
You died, but there was a yellow blanket that stayed in your crib, even after. You used to grip it like a flag. Your hands were doughy and pink and barely fingered, like the tips of very large thumbs. The wallpaper was covered in shells and seahorses. The rocking horse was a seahorse Father had made. When I tried to ride it in the days after you died, Em shouted at me with the force of all your whines. I kept riding, made a whinnying sound like a real horse. I was riding through the shallow reefs with my dog and fish friends. She had to pull me off. After Father left for work, waving from the truck, Em took me out back and hit me with a tree branch. She said, That's your sister's seahorse, you understand? I didn't understand. I didn't have a sister anymore. I just wanted to ride away more and more after that, be a mermaid.
Other Things in Your Room
Father let me help build a mobile for above your crib. You were still a bump in Em's belly then. I cut butcher paper starfish and assembled them in circles on the kitchen table. Father said things like, Those look great, my angel! And, What pretty starfish! Mother liked you best even then, as just a bump. She said the starfish would scare you. She said to at least make them smile, and when I did, Father said they looked like suns.
The Starfish Mobile
I thought they were pretty, the starfish, even smiling. Some days on the beach I would sit in full tide pools with Father and watch the small crabs dance among the rocks, tip the larger rocks to new spots in the tiny pools that were like whole worlds but weren't more than a meter deep. I would wonder what a starfish life might be like. Some nights Father read to me from books of how they moved across the ocean floor in constellations, how they kept the sea clean with what they loved to eat. I liked the idea of being a fish that was not just beautiful but clean, too. Em was nicer to me when my room was clean, would love me more if I were beautiful and smiling, a sun myself.
How I Made a Cloth House of Your Crib
Father rumbled down the drive with the makings of a crib in his truck. This would be your bed your whole life. The boards and slats came together from out a big box. He carried it up to the room that would be yours while Mother rested on the couch. She called to me for a glass of something. I brought her one of orange juice and she told me not to spill it. I put it on the table next to her and she said to get a coaster. I went to get a coaster but she had reached for the glass and I thought she was holding it when I let go. The glass broke against the floor like so many fruits. Mother shouted and shouted, but then stopped and began to cry. I waited for her to say something but she just kept crying. I went to touch her, thought that maybe that would help her stop. But she pulled her arm away and shouted No! Then Father came down the stairs, saw what had happened. He told me to go up to your room, to not touch anything and wait for him. I walked around the broken glass and orange spill and went. I heard Em sobbing louder as I climbed the stairs. I heard her shout No! No! No! a few more times. I remember thinking Father must have tried to touch her, too. I remember thinking maybe that was the last of the juice. I got to your room and our father had taken the boards for your crib out of the big box. There were clear plastic bags of nuts and screws and plastic black things scattered along the floor. The box was upright, its top open from where he had pulled everything out. It was just short enough that I could climb in and cover the top with my sheet. The light from outside the windows made the top of the sheet glow, comfortingly. I sat in the box for a long time. I tried to think of myself as a starfish, clinging to a rock with the ocean turning over me, the sun shining yellow across the surface of the water. I heard the dog sniffing against the box and I stood and pulled her in. I was a starfish and she was my dogfish protector. We rested and watched the sun pass over, the day pass by, other imagined lights of our own safe world. I miss her, the dog. I wish you had known her better. Em kept her downstairs most of your life, or outside. She was afraid the dog would scare you, would bite you, maybe eat you. But I never believed that. I think Em just didn't like the dog. And so we fell asleep in the box, the dog and me. I don't remember being found, but I imagine it must have been Father who did the finding. Em didn't like to climb the stairs while you were in her belly. She wouldn't have lifted the dog. And I would have remembered if it had been her to peel back the sheet and carry us out of that ocean. She would have been a monster in that imagining.
How Father Let Me Help Him Build the Crib That Killed You
He came upstairs from where Em had been yelling and let me hold things for him. I asked if Mother was okay and he said she was just tired. I remember saying she was always tired now. He said to be nice, she has to watch me all day while he is at work, and we should let her rest now that he is home. He said he would try to be home more from now on and that made me happy. Then we built the crib. He told me what to hold and how to hold it. Hold this plastic piece just like this, my darling. Now let go. Good! Okay, now hold this one, too. Keep it still…perfect! Three more times. I wasn't sure of how this was really helping, but whatever I was doing worked—the crib rose up slowly before us.
Some Things I Remember Our Father Building for 1983 Beach Road North
Father built a family post in the ground to hold our mailbox. It held the family name, painted with starfish and seahorse and shells along the letters. The starfish and seahorse and shells I added, I am told, but I do not remember doing so. From house to house that post has traveled with us, numbers climbing toward the beach where it stands now. Father built the path of ocean flatstones at 1983, from the driveway to the stairs before the front door of the house where you lived with us. He did the same at ‛95, and some weekend I'll do it here at '13. He built the porch of which the stairs were a part. Cedar, red-stained. The porch bench, too, stained the same. He planted the flowering rhododendrons before the porch, pink and glowing. He filled the clay flower pots resting along the porch. He planned the colors of the flowers in the pots to match the paints on the shutters bought from a shop in town, to match the 1 and 9 and 8 and 3 wooden numbers at a diagonal beside the door. The frame for the painting Mother made of the city, Father built that from four scraps of your crib without her knowing. The fire in the backyard of your crib, after it killed you. The rope swing in the oldest elm tree, he lassoed that highest branch with one try. The rope swing in another tree when I wished to swing higher. The fort in the third tree I fell from, and the splint for the arm that broke. A garden patch of railroad ties in a rectangle. Tomato vines, greens and reds. Basil plants. A doghouse. Bowls of his favorite pasta. Pools of olive oil with vinegar, swirling on magic small plates. Fires in the fireplace. Songs from his guitar. Songs from his singing voice. Simple songs I'll never forget. Strong memories. The Pledge of Allegiance. The Star Spangled Banner. Folk songs his father taught him. Church songs his mother taught him. Christmas songs. Christmas presents. Easter baskets. Easter egg hunts. Scrambled eggs on weekend mornings and smiling, star-shaped pancakes in stacks and stacks. Fireworks on the fourth of July. Band-Aids on my cuts or bruises. Chapter after chapter of never-ending happy bedtime stories. Glasses of milk in the middle of the night. Safe cloth houses in the middle of the night. Happy endings to every nightmare. Everything better. Everything brighter, sunnier, definitely. Beautiful flowers for you when you died, and beautiful words after you'd gone. Everything good that ever makes me cry to remember.
Our father was a great builder of things.