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The start of the First Shift of Seven Shifts

Janet Parker Vaughan

First Shift


—age three to four—


This my new bed. A bed without bars. Where this summer night I lie in whole sight of the plaster ceiling and its slant of pink-striped wallpaper, lie with wide open eyes staring at deer-heads, small figures with beige faces and golden antlers that are in the stripes and around the border of the wallpaper. Deer-heads that see the whole sight of me. Stare down at me with understanding.

   Long evenings of summer, peaceful, in this my new bed. Where, when I am not staring at the deer, I gaze toward the window and its drawn blind, watch behind it the orange glow of sunset, its change to gentle dimness, to dusk. A dusk in which I lie patiently, wait with open eyes to spin out into the wallpaper just before it turns to blackness.

   I am older this summer. I know because of the bed. Its curved ends of cold brown metal tubes and its slumped mattress and its pillows of shallow feathers that are slinky soft. Grown-up bed in which I am sleeping alone, in which I learn, to keep myself from sinking, how to put my arms out over the quilt, out over the dry white edge of the sheet.

   All summer in my new bed sleeping peacefully alone. But in winter, not alone. Because my mother comes in from her room to sleep with me. Has to. “I have to,” she says. Because of asthma attacks.

   On the nights I wheeze, she gets into my bed on the far side, bending her head along the slant of the ceiling. Gets in with a weight that slumps the mattress deeply, making me feel as if I am on a steep side-hill and about to slide. Gets in and slumps the bed and pulls the layers of heavy quilts up as far as she can to almost cover our heads. Making us hot, very hot. Hot like a furnace-hot hole. I, on my sidehill, try not to disappear, not to slide, with my feet braced against her thigh. So to try to go to sleep, heaving for air against the hot weight of the quilts. Heave for air or die.

   Sometimes, to breathe easier and not to lie crosswise, I turn, face away from my mother, cling to the edge of the mattress, stick my leg out into the cold room, bend it back over the cotton of the quilt so my foot feels safe and cool and clean. But when I do this she always gets up, stumbles along the wall’s darkened slant, goes around the end of the bed to turn on the light.

   “What is this foot doing sticking out!” she scolds, tucking it back in.

   After she says this I wait. I wait until she turns off the light, goes back around the end of the bed, bends along the wall, weighs down the mattress, pulls the covers back over our heads, wait until she is settled and asleep again. Then I put out a hand. In this way I learn to breathe through either foot or hand.

   But I like it when my mother sleeps with me. Even though the bed feels heavy and thick. I like it that she is there for company while I am sick. I like it she is there to change my soaking pyjamas, to put on more Vicks. I like it, my mother looking after me.

   “I don’t want to see you choke to death while you’re asleep,” is what she says.

   I like it, too, when she leaves the room in the morning, when I can lie face up again, more on a level, when I can raise my arms in fresh pyjama sleeves over the edge of the sheet. I like it when I am left alone, asthma over and wheezing softly, to weakly dry out in coolness and peace.

   Some nights when it is very cold, my mother tells me to keep my head under the quilts, not to breathe the frosty air. It is on these nights that I stay awake a long time, my nose at the very edge of a black unknown. I am not afraid. I know when I wake up in the morning, my mother will get up, bend along the slant of the wall, go to the window to exclaim about the deep white forests of frost that coat the panes.

   Sometimes, when I am getting over an attack, I lie in bed all day. This is when I sing, make up songs to pass the hours, bounce the bedsprings to make them wheeze, same sound as the wheezes in my chest, for in my chest live a frog and a mouse. A frog and a mouse, who like the mattress and me, sing raspy duets.

   Days, I come to know, are for easier breathing, nights for terrible feverish heaving. Some nights are so terrible I am unable to cling to the side-hill. All I can do is lie straight back on the slack pillow, both feet braced against my mother’s hip, the top of my head close to the cold metal tubes of the bed. Higher, higher I want to lift my head, higher to gasp with open mouth, higher to raise myself beyond the heft of the quilts, higher to strive against the great iron-bar that lies across my chest. Higher, higher. Begging hai-ya, hai-ya. Begging and suffering for breath.

   These nights, my mother gets up, goes round, bends over me calm. My father gets up, light shining in the hall, saying that even from there he can hear my heart pound. A pounding that is in my ears, in my chest. That trembles the bed. That is stronger than the heft of the quilts, larger than the room of night around me, larger than the small body of my self. Pounding, rhythmic pounding, that makes my head sit up on top clear as a midnight bell.

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