The nurses forbid us from touching our feet to the floor. We were to stay in bed. So we made the tiles below a river and rode our mattresses across them like boats into dark tunnels. Sometimes we’d emerge to the other side, surrounded by mountains that flinched as we approached. Even the landmasses feared us, what we could do to them.
We were six. Six when you learn to tie a shoe, read a primer, twist a tooth until it breaks from its root. Teeth are like bones exposed to air, Elizabeth told me. She would say things like that, smart true things that I carry with me still.
Still was the air. Quiet, ground down. The food would come on trays, the nurses in masks. Eat, eat, they’d say. But food tasted of phlegm, of stone. It was too hot or too cold. Swallowing made our throats ache. We crossed lines on the wall to mark the time. 210 for me, 176 for Elizabeth. I couldn’t see her bones when she first arrived, but there they were now, poking out at sharp angles.
Sometimes I’d stand up in my bed, reach as far as I could. If I stretch, stretch, stretched I could open the door a crack without leaving the boat. I could check if the infirmary spies were on duty. When the watchman took a break, I could clasp my bread in my hand. I could leap, fly, land. The boat rocked less with two girls aboard. The extra weight tethered us to the earth, steadied the current of our hearts.
I pressed my roll into Elizabeth’s palm. At least try the bread, I said. I know you like the bread. She chewed slowly, her jaws determined but weary. Worn down by fever. When I get home, she said. It will be spring, and I’ll walk to the gulley to pick two daffodils. The kind you put to your chin to turn it yellow. One for each of us.
I fell asleep beside her and dreamt of baskets filled with sunlight. Sister Claire arrived at half past three, smelling of sacrament, to give us our reading lesson. She wasn’t stern like the nurses, and always brought a fairy tale to read after we’d practiced our vowel sounds. The A and the I and the E of things.
Tsk, tsk, my girls, she whispered. Look at you, tangled up together like a ball of yarn. God doesn’t want you to tax those sweet hearts by climbing in and out of bed.
I opened my eyes just as the color dropped out of Sister Claire’s cheeks. She made the sign of the cross, bashful and quick. She kissed her fingers, squeezed my hand. Then she lifted Elizabeth gently from my arms and carried her, wilted, to the door.
The next day, Sister Claire brought me a book of poems with a lamb on the front. Anna Jane moved into the bed next to mine. She didn’t want to ride in boats. She was eight, her mouth full of permanent teeth. She thought the two extra years meant she knew more than I. But she didn’t know the half.
With the spring, a shipment of penicillin arrived for the children who had rheumatic fever. A nurse delivered the medicine to me via syringe. I set my feet down on the river and walked out the La Rabida door.
MAUREEN LANGLOSS is a lawyer-turned-writer living in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, New Delta Review, Pithead Chapel, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. “La Rabida Heart Sanitarium, 1954” was a finalist in the spring 2017 Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Contest. Find her online at maureenlangloss.com or on Twitter @maureenlangloss.