SWEEPING UP • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

In the airless space between thunder and a slash of lightning, the fat woman was there on one of my kitchen chairs. She heaved herself around to an easier position and stared at me. Stared isn’t the right word but nothing else fits better. It was kind of like a neutral focusing of attention on the matter at hand.

She was fat in a way that even in these obese times is not common — as though a waterbed became a person, with tides shifting under the skin.

That awful cliché, “but she had a pretty face,” was true. I couldn’t understand how, in all of that fatness, her features could be so carefully sculpted. She resembled that tender Picasso drawing done while he was still giving women their humanity.

Having just implored celestial intervention, I was less surprised than I might have been, but I was taken aback by her nakedness.

“They’re going to need a bigger pin,” I couldn’t stop myself thinking, and waited to be consumed by fire.

Her face took on the same patient look one sees on people in shabby waiting rooms, where low expectations preclude disappointment.

“Please make everything be okay,” I said after a moment or so when the vengeance of the Lord had not forthcome.

“Try for a little more clarity of expression,” she said.

It was the voice that confirmed her identity. She spoke in clear chiming echoing tones, quite unmistakable.

“Well, you know,” I said, and I could hear how peevish I sounded. At times like this you hope you’ll rise to the occasion. If only, I thought nervously, she’d hewn a little more to conventional representation.

“Those Renaissance boys,” she said, “always crazy for the Swedish girls. How they conceptualized the exotic. A surprising failure of imagination, really.”

I hadn’t been praying for a seminar on art theory.

“You know everything,” I said, and now I sounded like an escapee from a ’60s Hammer production, “can you not help me?”

This was going so badly, but she seemed in no hurry. I put the kettle on again and made myself a fresh mug of tea. It struck me that offering her one too would be a peculiar sort of denial of faith. She never stopped looking at me. She let me finish drinking my tea before saying, “A choice must be made.”

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, and the caffeine hadn’t eased my mood very much.

“Do what’s right.”

“Well — !” I said, with as much violence as I dared to express. Thought my usual forms of response might be tricky, under the circumstances. But I couldn’t stop anger from spilling over into the hot burning tears that might as well be brimstone, the way they scorch your face as they roll relentlessly down. “If I knew what that was — ”

She was just maddening. Not a hint! Even game show hosts waggle their eyebrows at you or something, to keep you from wandering onto treacherous ground. I squeezed my eyes hard shut for a moment — I would not fumble for a tissue — and then glared defiantly at her again.

Nothing but that awful patience, that doesn’t give you one single little handhold to haul yourself up by.

“It wasn’t fair!” I said. Maybe I shouted it. “How can someone get away with hurting someone else so much?” Perhaps it was silly, not using more specific pronouns, but the pain was already so terrible. She was all-seeing enough to color in the details, I thought in fury. And she still couldn’t come up with any advice?

“Then why are you here, if I have to do it all myself?”

“Company,” she said.

That silenced me. It was just so horribly logical. I couldn’t think of an argument against it, though damn me I tried. I tried to hold onto my indignation as it leaked all over the kitchen floor. What a futile mess, I thought to myself, and suddenly realized it was the anger I meant.

I knew I’d just had a revelation, but — in light of the weightiness of its catalyst — it seemed a ridiculously small one. “Is that a trick conclusion?” I blurted. But I could feel she wasn’t going to say any more.

Stillness entered me. It was a very pleasant feeling, more than I could have imagined. I got up awkwardly, as though I were moving in a different gravity, and staggered into her arms. She was really too large to embrace. She was soft and cool but had no other nameable attribute. After a moment — whether by my time or hers, I couldn’t tell — she was gone.

Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds.

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