Darlin’ Neal ~ The Swirling

Emily and Foster have been on the road to New Mexico for hours.  No one cries.  The cab smells of yel­low ros­es. Through the win­dow the land­scape becomes desert, tremen­dous sky, almost home.  The air swirling through holds that tin can scent of rain that must be falling some­where in the dis­tance, some­where they can’t see, over that next moun­tain.  Fixtures of cac­ti, yuc­ca, and mesquite bush­es blur into images of las­so­ing cow­boys shak­ing bangs from their eyes.  She watch­es for real move­ment, for coy­otes, rab­bits, or high­er, hawks cir­cling in the sky where the clouds could be anything.

In Mississippi where they have been, she could not smell that scent of com­ing rain.  There are long driz­zling days, thun­der­storms, so often that peo­ple take the rain for grant­ed.  When she lived there, when she grew up there they would make up sto­ries to go with every sound. She espe­cial­ly loved the lazy days of being locked inside with her sis­ter, Vivian, the dev­il out there beat­ing his wife while the trees creaked and scratched against the house.  Even fear, then, delight­ed them.  They would spin and spin in cir­cles lis­ten­ing to the drum­ming of rain and the bang­ing of the wind.  They would fall down and close their eyes imag­in­ing that the dizzi­ness meant they were being car­ried away on some easy tornado.


In Mississippi there has been Vivian, old­er now but still too young for this can­cer to be tak­ing her away, say­ing from her hos­pi­tal bed, “I don’t want to sleep forever.”

Emily knows, for a lit­tle while, the mor­phine will awak­en her sis­ter to every vibra­tion in the room.

Tell me some­thing,” Vivian says, “I love hear­ing your voice.”

Emily fills with dreams.  She sits in that ster­ile room and imag­ines a couch, framed pho­tos and books, a poster from London. Vivian’s liv­ing room filled with sou­venirs from both their lives, the trip to London tak­en by Emily, alone.

Talk about Albuquerque?” Vivian asks.  Emily wants Vivian to look in her eyes but Vivian is watch­ing Foster at the win­dow. He can­not sit still and they can­not do any­thing about it. They can­not help him.

Emily thinks now she could tell them she guessed about their long ago affair.  She has believed that one day she would con­fess what she knows, what she guessed in care­less clues, wine glass­es and can­dles left beside the bed, a for­got­ten bracelet in the wrong bath­room, an ear­ring caught on a pil­low­case.  Once it mat­tered so much.  She knew one day they would all have to face it.  Emily could have left her hus­band but not her sis­ter.  There nev­er would have been a choice.  It mat­tered for a while and now it’s tum­bled down to nothing.

Emily says, “Albuquerque was beau­ti­ful but you always want­ed your Mississippi.’”

Vivian does not look at Emily.  She keeps watch­ing Foster who peers down into the park­ing lot below.  She nods, under­stand­ing. She says, “Albuquerque was yours.  I always want­ed just to visit.”

I was so scared in the city. I couldn’t dri­ve. You were nev­er afraid of anything.”

Vivian sighs.  “Of course I was.”

I know it. I just don’t remem­ber a time.”  Emily adjusts Vivian’s sock and pulls the sheet back over it. The flow­ers on the rolling tables, through the door­way, on the counter on the bath­room sink, she can smell so many of them. She has this feel­ing inside, a fight deep in her shoul­der bone, cours­ing through her blood.

Foster steps from the win­dow to the bed­side.  Emily can smell his sweat.  He always smells like soap, but not now, not in this humid place, not with all this stand­ing and watch­ing and pac­ing.  He asks, “Are the pil­lows fixed all right?  Do you want to move?”  Emily watch­es his hands.  He touch­es the sheets beside his sister-in-law’s elbow.

It’s all right,” Emily imag­ines say­ing.  “Just touch her.”

No.”  Vivian purs­es her face.  “Not yet.  Talk to me.  I don’t want to sleep.”  He looks so help­less, his hands open at his sides.  Emily stares at the cal­lus­es, at his ten­der, scared fin­gers, all those years of working.

She watch­es Vivian smile.  There are secrets in that smile.  The can­cer has drawn her skin taut.  How can some­thing called a pan­creas be so cru­cial, so impos­si­ble to save. There is a hint of rosi­ness to her cheeks.

You’re such a pret­ty woman,” Foster says.  There is so much of this.  It makes Emily tired.  All these same thoughts in everyone’s head at once. Everyone else but Vivian, every­one else, say­ing the wrong things.

Vivian shakes her head.  She even smiles.  Sunlight pours in through the win­dow and Emily thinks of how they nev­er stopped talk­ing in terms of mes­sages from birds, rain that shone through sun­light.  Messages from the earth that were so impor­tant grow­ing up on that Mississippi farm.   Messages that Vivian kept with her in Jackson, in her scrubbed house, that house she final­ly had built, with all the scents from the gar­den waft­ing in from the great back­doors. Those crazy storms com­ing round and round again.

It’s not regret that mat­ters,” says Emily.  She real­izes she is winc­ing, rub­bing her aching shoul­der.  She real­izes Vivian is watch­ing her.

I found so much on the Web,” says Vivian. “If I could get to a com­put­er now, I’d research your condition.”

Emily’s shoul­der aches.  Her chest aches.  Her absent breast.  Her mas­tec­to­my was four­teen years ago.  She’s nev­er stopped count­ing the time and now even sec­onds mean noth­ing and everything.

I wish you could research your own,” Emily says.  “That you could pre­scribe the mir­a­cle treatment.”

I tried,” Vivian says, peer­ing into Emily’s eyes, then toward the open door behind her.  There are foot­steps.  Emily turns expect­ing to find Vivian’s hus­band, Jonathon, or the preach­er who keeps com­ing by, but the hall­way is emp­ty, the floors shiny and scuffed.  A jan­i­tor push­es a buffer, the cir­cling brush­es wax­ing the floor beneath.  When Emily turns Foster is back guard­ing the win­dow.  Vivian sleeps.


Emily, Foster, and Jonathon alter­nate the bed­side watch.  Sometimes they are all there at once.  The days bleed one into the oth­er.  The hours.  The light seeps behind the build­ing out­side.  The flu­o­res­cent lights are off.  Emily waits for Vivian’s eyes to open.  She fol­lows where they look, at the lit­tle lamp on the bed­side table, paint­ings on the wall, flow­ers on the coun­ters.  When she is awake she notices every­thing until it makes her tired.  She even twists to look behind, at flu­ids cir­cling in a tube.  She frowns and Emily begins to say, “No, don’t do that.”

Jonathon?” Vivian calls.  “Everything is stream­ing right out of me.”

It’s all right,” he says.

Jonathon’s crisp clothes are pressed.  What will he do when the clos­et emp­ties and he has to wash?  Has he washed?  Does he know how to iron?  He is wear­ing sneak­ers as if he for­got to fin­ish with­out Vivian being there to inspect him before he went out.

Emily thinks of the way he’d raise a news­pa­per and ignore Vivian com­plain­ing about some­thing he had or had not done.  Then drop it down and say, “Okay, Vivian.  Okay.”  His smile used to be charm­ing to Emily.  She had admired his skill in han­dling the fam­i­ly tem­per. He seems mut­ed now.

What did you let them do?”  Vivian asks.

Go on,” Emily whis­pers because she sees how he might crum­ble and Vivian is not pay­ing atten­tion to him any longer but watch­ing those pre­cious flu­ids cir­cling in the tube.  “Go on and get some rest.”

When he opens the door there are all those women again, those old crones from church, wait­ing, offer­ing emp­ty mes­sages for Vivian which he has final­ly learned not to pass on.  “I don’t know those sil­ly women,” Vivian has said.  “I don’t want them com­ing in here and star­ing at me.”

The preach­er arrives.  Emily has noticed he always arrives with the women. She finds this insult­ing to her sis­ter.  She does not respect him but her sis­ter does, so she is silent.  He sits there and rubs Vivian’s leg.  Emily wants to grab his hand, say stop touch­ing my sis­ter, stop telling her that things will be fine no mat­ter what.  In the hall­way the women cir­cle Jonathon.  All their clothes seem too tight or too short to Emily, the heels ridicu­lous­ly high.  She tries to remem­ber if this is the way in Mississippi, to dress up for hos­pi­tal vis­its.  She’s grown accus­tomed to the casu­al dress of New Mexico.  Foster is wear­ing jeans.  She thinks of some­thing she saw this morn­ing, two things, cars speed­ing up when an ambu­lance tried to pass, rush­ing even to beat red lights.  Then in just a moment, on a dif­fer­ent street, a funer­al pro­ces­sion and all the cars pulling over.  A black man got out of his gold Cadillac and took off his hat.  He held it to his chest and bowed his naked head.

When the preach­er leaves, Emily clos­es the door.  Vivian says in a voice that makes Emily feel they are enclosed in thin glass, “I know things will be fine one way or anoth­er but I asked that one thing.  I asked Jonathon to not let them oper­ate again.”

Emily takes her hand.  All the veins look bruised as does the skin beneath her eyes.  In Vivian’s palm is the mor­phine pump.  She says, “Emily, is the ceil­ing spi­ral­ing away from us?”

The words make Emily’s heart race with all they might mean but she does not look up.  She says, “Squeeze,” and Vivian does.

They wait for some feel­ing to come. Something tum­bling from the wide open­ing in that glass above their heads, down to the lit­tle space that con­tains them, some­thing like still­ness in the air.

Vivian clos­es her eyes.  The heart mon­i­tor sounds soft­ly, turned down low.  Vivian whis­pers, “Emily? Is that you mak­ing that noise?”  Emily lis­tens but she for­gets to watch.  She wants to hear some frag­ments of a beau­ti­ful dream, hear names being called out of peo­ple wait­ing with open arms. Vivian says more loud­ly, “Emily? Is that you mak­ing that noise?”


Are you sup­posed to be telling me something?”

Emily stud­ies the paint­ing where Vivian’s gaze wan­ders, mud flung on a blue background.

Say some­thing.  Let me hear your voice,” Vivian says.

I’m try­ing,” says Emily.

What is that light from the door?” Emily turns toward the hall­way where Vivian looks.  No light comes through.  The door is closed.  There is no one there.  She faces all the flow­ers, her sister’s closed eyes, breath­ing deep­en­ing into sleep.

She lis­tens to all the mon­i­tors, the flu­ids like alarms going off so long past exhaustion.


Everything keeps dark­en­ing and fad­ing, shrink­ing.  Vivian’s face.  Her body. Emily hates that ridicu­lous paint­ing and even that feel­ing shrinks down into some­thing like com­fort.  It becomes famil­iar. She fears she will nev­er for­get it. Vivian talks to ghosts.  Emily will not pre­tend to see them. The lie would make Vivian angry.  Vivian’s eyes, Vivian’s smart beau­ti­ful eyes, start to look mean and then she is not ask­ing any­thing. Emily’s body fills with pain but it feels out­side the way her mind is work­ing.  She can­not lift her arm.  She sends Foster away to make sure Jonathon is eat­ing, make sure he sleeps for at least three hours in the hotel at night.

She keeps think­ing of that time when she knew her sis­ter and hus­band had been lovers, how Vivian came over and sat in a rock­ing chair and cried in silence.  How she said she just need­ed to be there. She just need­ed to cry.  Emily nev­er told her what she guessed. She gave her Kleenex.  She hugged her and rocked her a lit­tle at the door and said good­bye.  “You will be all right.”

She feels almost cru­el think­ing of it now in that hos­pi­tal.  She does not know why.  She and Foster keep watch.  Jonathon keeps watch.  One evening they leave him alone with her sis­ter and when they come back Vivian is gone. Jonathon’s arms and face are raked with deep claw marks.

She was so strong,” he says, crum­pling even as he stands.  “She fought for hours.”  They are all, Emily and Foster and Jonathon, all in each other’s arms.  They are all so glad to leave.  Outside in the park­ing lot the rain tugs at their clothes.


Just up from the grave hors­es prance in cir­cles in a field.  It’s the spot Vivian picked, as if she might look up and watch the pret­ty hors­es with those swish­ing tails. She picked even the dress she is wear­ing hid­den in that cas­ket, the same dress she wore to waltz in her son’s wed­ding forty years ago.  Emily can­not imag­ine pick­ing her own gravesite or clothes to be buried in, being that brave or wast­ing some­thing some­one else might need or even pre­serv­ing a dress for so long.  She will be cre­mat­ed.  She will tell her chil­dren, “Scatter me wher­ev­er you want, or keep my ash­es.  It doesn’t mat­ter.  Maybe do a lit­tle of both.  Whatever makes you feel better.”


On the road, the sky grows dark­er and dark­er, the heavy clouds cov­er­ing the sun, so weight­ed gray and black they look as though they’ll fall and break the world below that cracks from need of water.

Then they do, in fat drops, then rivers and rivers that butt against the vehi­cle.  Lightning jags across the sky.

The clouds thick­en and coil down onto the high­way.  The gray drops right down in front of the truck and what else can Foster do but dri­ve into them? Emily feels the road slip from beneath as their truck lifts high­er.  She smells the tin-can rain, the dust.  The high­way dis­ap­pears from view and it is as if they float on a Lazy Susan. A sur­round­ing wall of water holds the vehi­cle in place. A semi ris­es up like some frag­ile toy, comes toward their wind­shield, spin­ning around and around.  It miss­es them and dis­ap­pears. Foster shouts, “Hang on.”  He shouts, “I’m going to dri­ve through.”  He guns the engine. She can hear it roar as they fly through the sky.  They remain inside that swirling wall of water. “There’s trac­tion,” he hollers.

Just like that they come out the oth­er side, turned in the wrong direc­tion, with the evening sun at their backs, but square down on the highway.

Where did the semi go?” Emily asks.

Foster dri­ves one direc­tion and then the oth­er, search­ing to see if they might help the truck dri­ver. Finally, he shakes his head.  Rain beats the dusty ground for sec­onds and is gone.

They U‑turn.  When she starts Foster catch­es her laugh­ter.  A yel­low Do Not Pass sign bends at an odd angle.  Heading home feels like the wrong direc­tion, like a dead end even though they keep going.  “Oh,” Emily says, clap­ping her hands.  “Let’s do it again!”  All the way through New Mexico she search­es for fun­nel clouds.  All the way she keeps hoping.


Darlin’ Neal is the author of the sto­ry col­lec­tions Rattlesnakes & the Moon and Elegant Punk. Her fic­tion and non­fic­tion have appeared in dozens of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Mississippi Review, The Southern Review, Puerto del Sol, and Best of the Web. A recip­i­ent of the DH Lawrence, Frank Waters, and Mississippi Arts Commission Fiction Fellowships and a Henfield Transatlantic Review Award, she is Associate Professor in the MFA and under­grad­u­ate Creative Writing pro­grams at the University of Central Florida.