The Smell of Sage

A work of fiction where a woman, independant in spirit and determined in will, is galvanized by “the smells in her beloved desert that are woven in and around the very cells in her being…”

by: Pamela Cottam

The old woman’s hands tried to make a fist, enough to hold the quilt and bring it up to her chin. Her gnarled fingers and swollen joints bullied her, stark reminders of all the other things wrong with her body. She let go the fabric, waiting for the nurse to return to make her warmer.

In the quiet of the darkened room, she moved her toes and tried squirming her legs closer together. The maggots were gone from her legs and wrappings cuddled her skin with antibacterial cream and lotion, but she felt obscene — reduced to no more than a rugose, bedridden silhouette of who she was. Others bathed her, changed her soiled underpants, and fed her like a child. Now she lay with legs sprawled out like a withered strumpet or thrown down tattered doll.

In her mind’s eye, she retraced the moments, the hours, the movements that took her from before she fell to the present. She’d been aware, she knew that; she’d savored every moment alone, functioning, independent, eschewing all offers of help from her children and the few friends who were still alive and cared. She’d avoided imprudent doctors and relatives who used their prying eyes for tell-tale signs of degeneration. At her house in Pittsburgh, she’d maintained her huge old home to keep social workers at bay by hiring help to keep up its outside appearances. She avoided visitors who might see the cracking walls, chipped paint, and food bits that littered and grew hair in the foyer carpet, and music room couch where she slept and ate her food.

A heart monitor beeped…beeped.

A round, friendly face peeped through the doorway “Katie Murdoch, just checkin’ to say hello! I’m the night aide watchin’ over you tonight. I see you’re new.”

“My name is Katherine.”

“Right. Katherine. Well, nice to meet ya. I’m Carrie Ann.” Hair pulled tight into a bun at the base of her neck, the aide swished her trunk-like form between the bed and chair. With peasant, fat fingers she pulled the sun-bleached curtains together.

“I like the curtains open.” Katherine watched Carrie Ann pause and re-open them. The curtains blended in with the sky’s deepening gray and her falling mood. Carrie Ann had intruded on the solemn, dark cocoon she’d been snuggling into.

“We like to close the curtains at night so no one can look in.” Carrie Ann’s expression resembled the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man’s, beaming with the vacant wisdom of her words.

“Yes. Well, I’d like to look out, even if it’s dark. If someone is stupid enough to stare at an old lady wearing a diaper who snores with her mouth wide open, so be it.” Katherine’s bony fingers opened, closed on the quilt under her chin. How much did this dismal place cost, and where did they get such stupid help. She shut her eyes in contempt.

The aide chuckled. “Are you warm enough, Katherine?” She squeezed between the cart and bed and stared down into Katherine’s face.

“I’m cold. My legs are cold. I need my legs closer…”

With gentle hands, Carrie Ann squirmed her fingers under the old woman’s legs and shifted them closer together. She grabbed a blanket from the foot of the bed and unfolded it, taking care to softly pad it around the tumid legs swathed in antiseptics and bound with gauze.

Memories of squiggling fly larvae scavenging in the sera that burst from her swollen skin seemed too horrific to be real. Katherine wriggled with shame.

A tomb-like quiet and calm enshrouded her after Carrie Anne left the room and kept the door open a few inches. On the night before her fall, legs restless and hurting, she’d heard crickets and toads serenading the dark outside her living room window, while cars rolled over the cobblestones. She’d been sleeping downstairs on the couch in her music room, too tired and weak by the end of the day to make her way up the long staircase to the second floor. When EMTs found her two days later, sprawled outside her bathroom and covered with flies, her fevered brain imagined herself roaming the desert canyons of her youth, the sun burning around her as the descending scale of a canyon wren echoed against the red rocks and she breathed in the aroma of sun-dried sage.

Now she lay wrapped in a quiet of closed windows and controlled air in a hospital, events from different decades coalescing into a blurred collage in her mind as a helix of incontinence and disinfectant wafted in and out from the hallway. A silent, exhausted lament sagged under the weight of all her years and the truth of her failing body. If she could just muster the strength, regain her energy, she could find her way home. Maybe travel one last time to the desert.

Red lights flashed as an ambulance quietly rolled past her window, splashing a garish light display against her walls. It stopped somewhere near her room, between a pond with mallard ducks and geese she’d spied for an instant earlier in the day, and a wing of the nursing home. Katherine heard rushing feet and deliberately subdued voices from the hallway, and discerned the squeaky roll of wheels as a gurney revolved past her door and into the night. Too tired and sedated to care, but too aware to ignore, she wished the soul a happy journey.

What to do with the hours. She couldn’t use her feeble arms to lift herself in her recliner to see the ducks or geese she heard this morning but couldn’t see in the pond across from her window. Forced oxygen helped her breathing, and physical therapy for the past three days helped her to bend her ankles and stretch out her arms. She wanted to raise herself and walk, to poop and pee and wipe herself without pressing a red button for help. But her stubborn legs hurt like scraped skin and felt like boulders hanging from her hips, grounding her from even a cursory lift up from her chair to glance out the window at something other than the sky.

Yesterday and today she’d screamed at the therapists. Didn’t they see she was trying hard to walk, to get the hell out of the skilled nursing home she’d been forced to go to? She marveled at how little they knew when she mentioned items in the news. She doubted they had much training in anything.

Today she’d argued with the head nurse, who returned later to speak with Katherine. “Indeed, Katherine, we can ease up on the exercises. I just checked your chart and latest tests. If you want to slow down, that’s fine. It’s up to you.”  Vindicated, Katherine scowled in agreement. Later in the day, an insidious question pushed forward in her mind: Did the easing of her exercises portend her recovery or demise?

Katherine waited for the late afternoon quiet to effect a slower pace of activity in the hall. Patients slept and she wondered if nurses did paperwork, so quiet did the hall become around 3pm. Today, waiting for the lull of voices and walkers and too-loud aides swishing down the hall, she wiggled her toes and circled her feet. Then, fingers shaking, she pushed aside her tray. One heavy foot down, she grabbed hold of the walker, tilting it forward from the side of her bed. Slowly, painfully she let the other leg slide down, her feet prickling as if she walked on needle points. From out of her bathroom she smelled her own soiled linen. Tears welled in her eyes as she thought of the smells in her beloved desert that are woven in and around the very cells in her being.

Each small step along the floor toward her door hearkened back to the curving dirt path winding around the sun-scorched canyons of Utah. Indian paintbrush flirted its red petals in rocky outcroppings of sage and prince’s plume, swaying in the dry winds. Katherine listened for the peppercorn shaking of a rattlesnake. If she could make it to the red sandstone arch overreaching the path, she’d cool in its shade and rest from her hike.

Another foot forward. She inhaled deeply, a fluttering like a butterfly swelling high in her stomach. Sweat trickled down her curly gray hair onto her neck. She held firmly to her walking stick, and wondered at the spottiness of her hands and the ache in her fingers. She needed more air.

Stumbling over a loose stone, she flew head first into a rock, her walking stick tumbling down on her. Pain, heavy and cruel grabbed her chest. Closing her eyes, a dry breeze waivered over her and perfumed the air with sage. In the rocks above, a canyon wren flitted in the shade as its melody scaled down and echoed across the canyon.


Pamela Cottam is an emerging writer who completed her MFA in Creative Writing. She is the author of a mystery, short stories and children’s fiction.  She received Honorary Mention at the Chautauqua Institution’s Summer Literary Festival, 2019 for her short story, Nurturing.

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