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Cut Up Fruit

Writing by Kaja Kubičková. Illustration by Heather Baillie.

When I got sick, I spent all my days lying in bed swaddled in blankets.

My old blankets had black and red polka dots on them, so I called them my ladybug blankets, even though Sarah always called me stupid for it.

Ladybugs only had black spots, she said.

I wanted to tell her she was stupid for not being able to see the insects on the blanket, the firemen-red bugs closing and opening their wings, crawling all over my feather mattress.

I was doped up on some pretty strong anti-fever medication back then.

When I was in my ladybug-sick bed, my mom would leave cut-up fruit by my bedside.

She even used the fancy china, the one we saved behind our smudged glass cabinets to show our visitors - “look, we’ve got nice plates” - before serving them all our food on our shitty little Winnie the Pooh sets, or the bowls labeled “bowl” and the plates labeled “plate”. Mom’s sense of humor was strange like that.

The fruits looked like flowers on my plate.

An apple, thinly sliced into a little green rose. Grapes–red ones, not green, because mom remembered I didn’t like those. Pineapples, carefully positioned so they weren’t touching the other fruit, because I always thought that they made other fruit taste too pineapple-y. Mandarins (I could just about imagine my mom, hands red and raw from the winter weather, peeling them carefully above our trash can) and watermelon, cut out into stars, bananas, cherries, strawberries, mangoes.

Every morning, I’d wake up, throat raw and sweat soaking my pajamas, making them cling to my body like tissue paper. I’d roll over, to look at the fruit on the blue and white china on the floor, and the lukewarm cup of tea next to it.

I’d just look at it, for a while. Mom had taken our phones away a while back. Sarah had complained, but then Sarah got a fever and she didn’t even want to look at it. I’d told mom I’d go into Sarah’s room and read to her, or tell her about the new movie we wanted to go see in the cinemas. But my mom took me by the shoulders and told me I mustn't go in.

Her eyes were scary–electric blue, her mouth thin and pursed. It struck me that I hadn’t quite realized how many wrinkles were on her forehead.

She’d ushered me off to sit on the couch with my homework. I didn’t see why it mattered. I hadn’t been to school in weeks now, and besides, I’d only been trying to help.

Mom thawed, as she always did. She said I could help her cut up the fruit for Sarah.

“Vitamin C,” she said, chopping a peach with a large kitchen knife. “People today don’t have enough vitamin C.”

Wrapped around the handle of the knife, mom’s fingers seemed thin, skeletal. The veins in her hands looked like earthworms that were buried alive. I had to look away, because it suddenly made me feel ill.

Mom took the fruit into Sarah’s room, mask on.

I thought mom looked scary in the suit.

I didn’t quite want to look at her with the gas mask, the tubes going in and out of her body as if she were an alien.

When I got sick, I never saw mom come into the room.

I suppose she didn’t want to scare me with the gas mask suit after last time, when I’d broken down and cried, and she’d taken it off and shushed me while stroking my hair.

“It’s okay, my little ladybug,” she said, the ‘ladybug’ of her native tongue was sweeter than the mango.“It’s okay, beruško.”

But that was okay that I didn’t see her, because every morning, I saw the cut-up fruit, and I knew she was thinking of me. I knew she had been downstairs, humming, and slicing my watermelon into stars, because she loved me.

I was only scared when I woke up one day and the side of my bed was empty.

I waited at my door for hours. I sat cross-legged, itching to open it, to walk downstairs and see my mom, to make sure that she was there, have her tell me she’d just gotten caught up in work, and wouldn’t I like to help her cut up the fruits?

The floor was cold and hard underneath me, but my mom had told me I mustn't - MUSTN’T - go downstairs. I was sick, I was contagious, I was resting.

But I felt better, Mom. I did - and I was hungry.

I tiptoed down our staircase, peeking into my mom’s room as I walked past it. The covers on her bed were crumpled, but it was bare. In the kitchen, I stood, alone, unsure of how to proceed. Everything was clean, pristine, and lonely. I checked the fridge.

Mangoes, papaya, raspberries, apples, fruit upon fruit, all ripe and beautiful and uncut.

I took an apple in my hand.

There was noise somewhere - moaning.

I clutched the apple, as if it was a baseball, or a grenade.

In Sarah’s room, a figure in a gas mask kneeled before something - someone - on the bed. Something shriveled, a husk, all grey and deflated.

It looked almost like Sarah.

The gas mask moaned, and I couldn’t help it.

“Mom?” I asked, and my voice shook.

The figure turned. “I’m so sorry, honey,” she said. And she bent over in a fit of coughing. I backed away.

“You didn’t cut up my fruit,” I whispered.

“Let me - let me do that for you, sweetheart.” She got up, teetering on her feet, and took an unsteady step towards me. “Come on, beruška.”

I backed away, because she scared me, in her alien astronaut suit, and so did the thing that lay in Sarah’s bed that didn’t look anything like Sarah.

But my mom cut up the fruit for me.

The stars were all wrong, on the watermelon, because her arm was shaking so much, but I didn’t say anything.

I sat on the couch and I ate it.

“Can we go to the zoo with Sarah tomorrow, mom?”

“Sure, ladybug. We’ll go to the zoo.”

When there was no fruit the next day, I cut it up for my mom. I brought it to her bedside, where she lay, still in her gas mask. I wasn’t sure what to do. Do I feed it to her under her mask?

I lifted the mask off off gently, and then with force, because it seemed almost fused to her face.

But the thing in my mom’s bed was gray, sunken, shriveled. I put the gas mask back on. Downstairs, I sat on the couch, alone.

I felt a lot better.

I looked at the watermelon on my plate.

The stars didn’t look as nice as the ones my mom used to cut up. And slowly, all of the apples turned brown.

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