The Bath || Katherine Szpekman

The autumn night my sister was released
from Bellevue, dressed in a rough shroud
of brown burlap,
my mother told me to take her upstairs
and bathe her.
I filled the old tub with hot water,
gathered a bar of Ivory soap and
the green bottle of Herbal Essence shampoo.
On the original label, in 1972, a girl with
long flowing hair, much like my sister’s,
smiled while she bathed in a mountain pond,
infused with herbal and floral scents.

I gathered a washcloth, a towel,
and her cotton nightgown.
Like an obedient child,
she allowed me to help her
out of her hospital clothes,
and into the bathtub,
the same tub where she had bathed me
when I was small
and she was the helpful big sister.

No fight to her nakedness, no modesty,
as if everything had already been taken;
the haze of Thorazine now in control.
I sat on the toilet lid trying to normalize
such intimacy.
Only her lovers had seen her breasts float,
and her hair fan like smoke.

She had always been the strongest
swimmer in the family,
and at the beach, her sure strokes
carried her farther
then our eyes could follow.

I knelt tub-side, lathered the scratchy
white washcloth, and asked her to sit up.
I gathered her cornsilk blonde hair in my hands
and swept it to one side, feeling its weight.
In circular movements, I washed her back
and shoulders, dunked the washcloth,
and wrung the hot water down her spine,
watched goosebumps appear like wishes.

Moving to her front, I washed each limp arm,
held each elegant hand,
washed each slender piano-trained finger,
scraped detritus from the moon
of each tender nail bed.
Splashes echoed in the cold room.
The bar of soap submerged
on the rubber bath mat,
like a stingray,
clouding the water.

I moved the cloth over her chest and neck,
up to the inscrutable canvas of her face,
under each pendulous breast.
I washed the tops of her legs, her calves,
her size-seven feet.
I washed between each perfect toe,
and lathered her hair,
the mythic fragrance now a betrayal.
There was no enchanting garden,
no magical pond.
I coaxed her to tilt back,
to rinse her head of the suds.

The water had grown cold.
I flipped the stopper open
and the gurgle of dirty water
circled the drain,
chugged along rough and gravely.
I held a worn bath towel up
as if to catch her or shield her.
She held the edge of the tub,
stepped out and stood,
arms hanging, without agency,
water dripping,
from her hair and body.

I leaned into her nakedness, still
unmoving, wrapped her as if she were
my child at the town pool,
patted her dry.
She lifted her arms, eyes fixed,
and I slid her nightgown down her body,
like dressing a mannequin.

We crossed the hall to her bedroom,
the walls covered with wallpaper
of blue climbing roses,
blue like the roses
bakeries pipe onto birthday cakes.

I brushed the tangles from her hair.
She lowered herself
into the familiar sheets.
I covered her with the blue comforter.
In the dim yellow light, she lay
as if she had already begun
collecting stones,
placing them in her pockets,
planning her walk
into the water.

Katherine Szpekman writes of loss, family, and our relationship with the natural world. Her poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in: Amethyst Review, Juniper-A Poetry Journal, Waking up the Earth: Connecticut Poets in a Time of Global Crisis, Aromatica Poetica, Red Eft Review, Sky Island Journal, Chestnut Review, Sheila-Na-Gig, Hiram Poetry Review, Rockvale Review, Connecticut Literary Anthology 2020, and others. She was awarded Honorable Mention in the Connecticut River Review Poetry Contest 2019. She lives in Collinsville, Connecticut with her family.
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