Ellaria Jane Peterson Is Going to Diehttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/saeed04-scaled.jpeg?fit=1920%2C1080&ssl=119201080Sandra K. BarnidgeSandra K. Barnidgehttps://barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/sandrabarnidge.png
Ellaria Jane Peterson is going to die. She has always known this about herself, the way everyone knows this about themselves, but she has not really believed she was destined to die until right here, right now. She is sitting on a dock with her boyfriend and a smattering of friends. It’s cold, too cold for dock sitting, and the girls are shivering under the arms of boys who are pretending they are not. The lake in front of them is frozen, and sharp winds whip thin trails of hardened snow across the ice, little pellets of it pricking Ellaria’s face like metal pins. She wants to bury her nose and cheeks under her boyfriend’s arm but he’s standing now, tall and broad, and he goes to the edge of the dock and lowers himself off the splintered wood and onto the ice. He is not the sort of boyfriend who tests the ice with just one boot before dropping himself fully, because he trusts that, like every February he’s ever known, the midwinter ice is more than strong enough to sustain him.
And at first, it is. And for a while, it does. And then, as he slides himself along a patch closer to the shore, it splinters and gives way, and for a minute, and then two, he’s under, his legs kicking furiously under the ice as he struggles to pull himself up from his self-made hole. The others reach for him but know better than to add their own weight to the unexpectedly fragile ice. They are close to the dorm and will get him inside as soon as he comes back to the dock. But for those few seconds that he’s still down, Ellaria keeps her eyes fixed on his kicking boots beneath the ice. She imagines her boyfriend slipping fully under it, trapped beneath it as his breath gives out and his face turns blue. She imagines, then, that it’s herself under the glass, unable to pound her way out, the cold absorbing her.
Her lungs tighten and her throat constricts, and she chokes out a scream that the others mistake for worry about the boyfriend.
Ellaria Peterson Bradley is Dying
Ellaria begins rasping on her lover’s couch. The lover is in the kitchen mixing brandy toddies, which have grown on her the way her lover has; she no longer wrinkles up her nose at the smell but in fact finds herself missing it more and more whenever she’s sipping on something else.
The rasping leads to a little blood in her palm, and the lover comes back and sets her drink down on the battered leather trunk he uses as a coffee table. If she weren’t coughing so hard, Ellaria would have reached immediately for one of his months-old woodworking magazines to slide under the hot glass. But instead of her lover’s lack of coasters, Ellaria is focused on the rising panic in her chest as she tries to ignore the feeling that she is drowning in herself, a feeling that will become more frequent and intensify gradually and then suddenly over the next three-and-a-half years.
Her lover pounds her back, which is well-intended but not helpful. When finally her spasms pass, Ellaria reaches for her glass and wafts the weakened steam of the toddy up her nostrils.
“Better than any medicine,” she says, putting her other hand on her lover’s wiry thigh.
Nana Ellie is Dead
“Nana” isn’t what Ellaria wanted her son’s little girl to call her, but the mother of the girl’s mother had circled the infant like a hawk and force-fed “Grandma” into the girl’s mouth until she’d had no choice but to spit the word back out only when in that other woman’s presence.
Ellaria didn’t see her grown son and his little daughter often; she stayed living in the town where he no longer would, in the house where she’d raised him and her husband’s first two children, who also had children of their own now, though they hadn’t called Ellaria “Nana,” or anything, really. The only two times Ellaria had met the babies she never wanted to call “steps,” they’d just babbled at her and put their sticky fingers in her mouth as she blew kisses onto them.
Those children now stood fidgeting next to her granddaughter—her nana-daughter?—wearing stiff dresses and bright white socks in the front pew of the church. A heavy pine box was propped up by the altar, and Ellaria lay primly inside with her hands crossed over a Bible. Her son was unhappy about the Bible, knowing Ellaria would have preferred the Tibetan Book of the Dead if anyone had bothered to ask her. But Ellaria’s husband had not asked either her or their son, and he wouldn’t have abided by what they said even if he had. Things like a preference for the Tibetan Book of the Dead were the kind of things the husband would miss least about Ellaria.
Ellaria’s lover was not at her funeral. No one had asked him not to come, but he knew it was best to grieve her in his way, without the people who had long stood in the wide space between her and him. As her son and stepson closed the lid over her body in the church, the lover walked down to the lake at the edge of town and scooped up a handful of the slushy start of ice season. He packed the slush into a tight ball and threw it as far as he could into the bitter yet still-open water. The almost-ice ball dropped below the surface, and without seeing it, he knew it would melt apart and scatter, the water free a little while longer before the cold would catch up with it again.
Sandra K. Barnidge is a writer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlas Obscura, Nimrod International Journal, The Fiddlehead, Allegory Ridge, Gone Lawn, and elsewhere. She is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama and working on her first novel.