by Lisa Alletson
I sit, folded, on a child-sized chair between our grief group leader and the biker-guy, Tim. My back on fire. Unwashed in my sweatpants. My damp armpits filling the air. Running my fingers through my hair to feel it rip. First with my left hand. Then with my right. Repeat.
When my sister was alive and working as an ER doc, she told me my symmetrical compulsions are called “evening up.” My body’s way of dealing with anxiety. We were walking on the lakeshore, watching her children race ahead laughing while my daughter crouched by the water, rocking and covering her ears.
Tim stares at my hair falling into his styrofoam coffee on the floor between us. His brother was murdered by a gang back home in England. Tim drifts between continents.
Seven of us huddle together every Wednesday in a small church hall with a dusty floor, with name cards and bad coffee and saggy faces. Surrounded by boxes of Sunday School pamphlets and Wise Men costumes.
“Mum and Dad are going bankrupt trying to find his killers,” Tim tells the group, scratching a welt on his arm. “It’s all ‘Justice for our Son’ posters and billboards. I can’t bloody take it anymore. He’s dead, for fuck’s sake. He’s not going to rise from the grave and walk home with that bullet in his thick brain.”
Our group leader nods. When Tim doesn’t say more, she offers him a bowl of red and blue stones like colourful canapes. Tim’s large hand inhabits the bowl for a minute as he selects, then rejects, a few pebbles; holding each for a moment as if to weigh it. He chooses the largest one. Red with black web-like fissures. He squeezes it, his knuckles whitening.
The leader offers me the bowl, her head tilted. I pick a gray pebble. Its cold smoothness fills my cupped palm.
“Think of it as a grief-stone,’ she says. “Find a marker and write your loved-one’s name on it. It’s something to hold when you miss them. You’d be surprised how many of us don’t have something that belonged to them, especially if we lived in different places.”
Tim has to eat at odd hours, at least twice during our meetings. Always the same unidentifiable meal. “I’m alright. It’s my parents I worry about,” he says at every session, prying open his tupperware of special food that smells of vinegar, his nails more bitten than mine.
I stick my pebble into my pocket. It falls through a hole in my sweatpants to the floor. I put it in my other pocket. The good one. Scratch my nose with one hand, then the other.
When my daughter turned four, she took a green marker from her pencil case and drew a wild-eyed horse held down by chains, tape over its mouth, being stoned by cows. Before I learned how she struggles to find her place in the world. Before I knew anything about autism.
The group leader passes me a tissue from the box on a crate of tattered angel wings.
On our final lakeside walk, my sister had crouched next to my daughter. Wrapped her strong hand around her small fist. Tried to teach her how to skip flat stones across the water.
“Proprioception,” she said later, over beers in the pub; her palms warm on my cheeks. “She doesn’t know where her body is in space.”
When group ends, Tim walks me to my car. Hugs me. The undertow of grief buzzes between us as if I’d put my tongue on a power line.
“You understand,” he whispers in his cabbage breath. I swear he’s going to try to kiss me in the dodgy parking lot beneath trees minted in frost, my husband waiting at home by the fireplace. I let go. Touch the car handle twice with each hand before opening it.
When I get home, I take the green marker from my daughter’s pencil box and write my sister’s name on my pebble. The chewed plastic marker, light in my fingers, glides smoothly over the stone; green ink sinking in without spreading.
My husband unpins my name tag. Kisses my neck. I place my pebble on the mantlepiece next to a photograph of my daughter and my sister laughing, skipping stones across the water. The lake is silver-quiet as if made of mercury so thick the two of them could lie on it and never sink.
Lisa Alletson grew up in South Africa and England, and now lives in Toronto. Her debut chapbook, “Good Mother Lizard” won the Headlight Review 2022 poetry prize. Lisa’s stories and poems are published in New Ohio Review, Crab Creek Review, Gone Lawn, Bending Genres, Milk Candy Review, Typehouse Magazine, among others. She’s on Twitter at @LotusTongue. You can read more of her published work at www.lisaalletson.com.