The Nixie

Lee Upton

The x-rays of her lungs, all that tracery. There were her ribs and the sacks of lungs and lodged in the middle — not off to the side as she had expected — her heart, which also looked larger than she expected. And passing through the lungs, the pathways and thin trickling trails. It looked so — busy.

Coletta was wheezing while she studied the x-ray with her doctor, the tops of her lungs pinched as if by a rubber band. All of the woodland was there in the x-ray, all the leaves and the glossy bark of saplings, and you could hardly see where you were going. And then you could break free into a clearing and be stunned by some marvelous sight — like, say, a man halfway transformed into a deer — the fur closing over the tender human skin, the head bound under the high-scaling antlers.

The card had come from a friend that morning, which must have been why she mixed up the image of her lungs with the image on the card. On the card: a woodland with the light flaring at the tips of grasses and saplings. In the foreground, the suggestion of a path.

On the back of the card: “In the Wood.” Alfred Sisley. Bridgeman Art Library/Christie’s, London.

Later, at home in bed, she studied the fur of her oldest cat, the fur near the ear brown and grey and tipped with gold, and thought she saw the painting reproduced on the card. A coughing fit seized her before she set the card down to study the resemblance between fur and the painted woods. Otherwise she might not have noticed the small darkness hovering farther in, almost above the path. The thing had shuddered when she coughed. The nixie.


The first time she’d heard of a nixie: at school in a book of stories. The nixie was a small skinny creature captured in a clear glass bottle. She had wanted to free the nixie.

Years later when she looked up the meaning of the word nixie online she wasn’t satisfied. A water creature. No, not her nixie.

The nixie she saw on the card her friend sent. That squiggly spot, that forked, arrowy spot. The bent portal into that woodland scene of scrub. The ugly little flaw, the nixie, the tiny crooked fork of the inexplicable.


It was her theory developed while she was still very young: that someday she would know she was an artist because her art would hold a nixie. When she was a child and saw a painting she admired she told herself, “I could do that.” By the time she turned thirteen, something changed. It was almost a physical thing, like an alarm went off under her ribs. When she looked for the nixie in a painting or a drawing and didn’t see the nixie she thought, “I wouldn’t want to make anything like that.” And when the nixie was there, even if the smallest brittle black or white scratch cast in all angles, or even if only a line of crooked pinpricks, she thought “It’s impossible. You have to be immensely gifted to be an artist, and I’m not.” She knew her limitations, didn’t she?


Before Coletta went into the hospital the cats began to be afraid of her because of her coughing. After weeks only one of the cats became accustomed to the sound. The cat was like a nurse maid, tucking her head against Coletta’s arm.

Coletta’s breath was crackling in her lungs — like lit kindling. Sometimes like wet kindling. Sometimes, though, it was like she was drowning slowly in sludge.

Coletta was kept in the hospital so long that the walls closed around her. It is a terrible thing that the brain does to itself. The nurses put up posters — forests, palm trees, so that she could see more than the walls of her mind.


Years ago when she was struggling to pay her rent Coletta used to clean a woman’s house to make extra money. In winter that woman displayed paintings of fruits in her living room — apricots split open, misted plums, pears ready to be eaten, so ready, as if you could push a thumb into the flesh. In summer, that woman put up winter landscapes — snow colored violet or lavender or blue or grey and settling on roofs or against fences. Those paintings made the woman’s apartment cooler, she claimed. She didn’t believe in air conditioning. Coletta wished she had all those paintings in the hospital with her. None of them with a nixie. Calming paintings.


Coletta used to walk in the woods and come home with burrs in her hair. She’d catch minnows in canning jars and swish them around and let them go. Bullheads in buckets. She brought the bullheads up the hill and freed them into the cow tank. Later she’d take the fish back to the creek again, the bucket slopping water on gravel. She and a neighbor took old boards, pieces of bark, dead branches, and binder twine and made a house in the woods. Why couldn’t they live there forever, drinking water from the creek, fishing for bullheads, eating berries, the breezes moving through gaps between the walls they made for their house? Why couldn’t they have been safe and happy there? The next day when Coletta returned to the house the boards were trampled. Hoof prints. The cows had been curious.


How will I know when I’m getting well? Coletta asked the doctor. She was told: You’ll start to get hungry.


She hadn’t been inside the hospital since her daughter was born. That was when her husband turned away from her after the delivery. She thought he was embarrassed by her. So familiar: that sinking hollow sensation of abandonment.

Her husband had only left to buy a gift for her and the baby — a stained glass angel, blowing a trumpet.

Coletta hadn’t yet known that she and her husband could trust one another enough for her to ask, Why are you leaving?


After the birth she’d lost too much blood. A nurse was assigned to her and sat in a chair to keep watch. Coletta could see sadness cross the nurse’s face, lanterns of sadness, the lights going on and off in the nurse’s face. The nurse was inside the deep room of herself. Every once in a while the nurse would shake herself out of her waking dream and look surprised to see Coletta lying in the hospital bed.


It wasn’t so much a lack of discipline that made Coletta stop painting and drawing. It couldn’t be such a small, childish thing, either: that she never could make a true nixie. In the story from her childhood when she first encountered a nixie it turned out that she didn’t need to rescue the nixie. The nixie was all sharp bones, criss crossed like a pirate flag and quick to unscrew the cap of the bottle where it was imprisoned. The nixie in the story tore the kitchen curtains from their rods, tossed itself into the living room and teethed the sofa, scattered cushions, poured gallons of water into the piano, and then broke, scaly skinny feet first, through a window. The nixie was all splits and kicks, all joints pointed in every direction, a terrible crooked miraculous terrifying thing.


What bothered Coletta: what she hadn’t done, mostly the drawings and paintings. She had been self-taught, and maybe that was the problem. She could hardly have afforded college and managed to go to a community college for only two terms. For years she worked at a framing shop. Framing photos and others’ terrible artwork, although she framed some beautiful work too. Once, for a young couple, she framed a giant silk scarf, yellow with blue clouds and swarms of red bats. A hand painted scarf. An ancient Chinese design. Coletta took incredible care with the scarf, drew the watery silk under her fingers until it lay smooth, gave the scarf a more expensive frame than the couple selected. A nixie was at the very edge of the scarf, and Coletta lost herself staring at the tiny creature blinking at the tip of a bat’s wing.

In the hospital when Coletta thought of that scarf she felt her chest had been punched through. But if she’d really wanted to make art why hadn’t she? For years she hadn’t even held a paintbrush or a fine pencil. Anyway, what if her efforts came to nothing? An entire life of trying and for what? No one would be proud of her.


Her husband mentioned an article he read about a man who was sick for many years. The doctors discovered a toy in the man’s lung — aspirated from when he was child. All that suffering. A tiny traffic cone from a set of cars. Another story: a man breathed in a seed. A tiny tree grew in his lung.


Coletta learned of a friend’s death on Facebook. She had only known the man from Facebook and now she knew of his death from Facebook. He had appeared to be a kind, resourceful person. No warning and no explanation. More cards for Coletta arrived at the hospital and then the cards stopped.

Coletta promised herself: I’ll draw again, I’ll paint again. Why not? What’s stopping me?


An illness can last a long time. Of course. Still, sometimes you’re thrown out of the hospital too soon. You’re basically tossed. Her brother had died after what should have been routine surgery. Her sister had died a day before she was to be released for physical therapy. Coletta’s husband complained that Coletta wasn’t ready to come home but of course she was.


Maybe it was all right to be tired, Coletta told herself after she left the hospital. She felt as if she had to be wearing cloth bundled around her ears, like men in old war movies, men whose injured heads and jaws are bandaged. Maybe she was more free than she would have been if she were healthy. Nothing could be expected of a sick woman.


Tiredness did not give Coletta anything as a compensation, except that she could detect the energy of others more often, with envy. She also guessed that some of the people she knew spent many hours coiled on a bed, face down, not sleeping. She herself was too tired to sleep.

There were many things to do, given how long she’d been in the hospital. She needed to sleep, and the house was in terrible shape, and she was applying for jobs online. There were visitors and emails to her daughter and son-in law in Connecticut and more visits by relatives.


By the second week, her plan to pick up her paint brushes was at most like a weak cough, a persistent cough, but nothing that required her to do anything about it.

She kept thinking of a woman who frequently took classes at the community college, a woman her friends called, with contempt, “the eternal amateur, the teenager.”


The third week after she left the hospital Coletta felt strong enough to walk in the woods. Her husband had said, If you’re determined to walk, wait till I get out of work. We can walk together. Here in the development.

She didn’t tell him she would walk in the woods, that the housing development was depressing. The spindly saplings, the curving streets that went nowhere, the houses that were so flimsily made — the sort of ugliness where even the oversized windows and the tiny balconies shout fakery — and you know that no one cared enough to do more than to use the worst materials, toxic fumes emitting from the corners of every room in all the airless houses.

She drove to the woods south of the development. It was autumn, with watery edged leaves in piles and the trees letting down more leaves so that their smell was in the air. Paths ran through the parkland and small streams tumbled and a cliff looked out toward the highway.

Her ability to walk so far proved her husband was wrong. She was fine. The doctors knew she was well enough to be out of the hospital even if they didn’t know exactly what was the matter with her lungs.

She kept walking the widest path until voices rang — young voices. She took another path. Ahead of her tree limbs brushed against one another and the high grasses were beaten down by the last rain. She passed a rock pile, and gasped when she saw a girl seated on a boulder, her elbows close to her sides.

Something about the girl was very wrong — drugs? Was she on drugs? The look of despair on that young face.

“Are you all right?” Coletta called out. The girl hurried away and Coletta followed after her.

The path branched into other paths, and after a while Coletta couldn’t be sure what path the girl took, or if the girl ran off the path and farther into the woods. How thick the underbrush was, the birches leaning and the grey light deepening where the path narrowed.

Coletta tried to stop thinking of the girl. Surely the girl would be all right. She had never been like that girl. When she was young she was happy to stay in her room and draw or paint, less likely to become emotionally entangled with boys than the other girls. Her parents had been kind, loyal, and among the least judgmental people she would ever come to know. Probably, though, it was true that she had been utterly unprepared for adulthood. She had no compass, no sense of how tricky people could be, given how transparent and unspoiled her own parents were, how incorruptible. They had trusted her — and couldn’t imagine why anyone might lie or cheat. They weren’t tempted, or at least she hadn’t known them to act on any temptations.

She was almost at the cliff. Far below she could see them: teenagers, at least seven, the girl among them, a boy’s arm around her shoulders. They were shouting and waving, waving at her. When Coletta turned she saw why : the antlers of the animal, the broad chest, the antlers caught in a sapling, all at crazy angles — part branches, part antlers, and the giant head shaking, nearly free.

She ran as hard as she could and as far as she could until she was sure she was safe. Boulders lined the path. She sat on one, heaving as if she had been drowning. She wondered if she’d actually seen a deer, or was it something else? Now that she was calming herself, she wasn’t sure if the teenagers were even shouting to her. Possibly they were calling to a friend on the slope below.

Coletta looked up. She was under an oak. Years ago she’d seen an oak so ancient some of its long branches were held up by giant crutches. An oak. Her father’s casket was made of oak. He’d requested that.

Ahead of her: a grotto of some sorts, an overhang where the earth was dug, the roots of a tree bare and hanging over the edge of what looked like a cave. The word grotto is related to the word grotesque. She’d read that fact online. One of those facts that’s not useful.

How are you, dear? The voice seemed to be coming from a shrub jeweled with baubles of rainwater.

How are you, dear? the voice asked.

On the ground by the shrub: a forked stick. All angles. Bent.

I used to whip people, the stick said. I used to be a switch. You don’t know much do you? the stick said.

Coletta couldn’t speak, and the voice said, An old joke. What’s brown and sticky? A stick. Everyone knows that joke, the stick said. There’s a tall flower-headed plant not far from here. It can blind you if you touch it. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace. It’s supposed to be pretty. Everywhere you walk, you have to be careful. You push away a branch and it will charge right back at you. You’re right not to trust me. I’m sorry you’re just finding that out now. I’ve been with you for a long time and you’re just getting to know me.

You haven’t been with me, Coletta said.

Oh yes I have.

Coletta wanted to run away but sat, paralyzed. The oak sagged above her and let down old rain drops.

The stick said, That snake you saw when you were first married — the one in the yard, raising its head by the walnut tree? That was me, the stick said. That time you lifted your baby up and scratched her eyelid when you didn’t notice how low the crabapple branches were growing, that was me. Those antlers back there by the cliff? That was me.

Coletta managed to speak. You think you’re everywhere? she said. You’re not. You’re just a stick. That’s all. A stick.

You made a house out of me.

You fell apart.

So what? I’m a stick. What did you expect? You’ve always been trying to catch me. You can’t catch me, can you?

They stared at one another for a long time, the woman panting, catching her breath again, and the stick near the bush thrashing to stand.

When at last it stood, the stick ran. Crookedly, and with joy, unholy joy.


It took Coletta a long time to find her way back to her car. On the highway two cars and a truck blew their horns at her. She was traveling far beneath the speed limit.

Once she was inside her house she rushed to the room where her paint supplies were boxed. She loosened the rubber band from around a bundle of paintbrushes. How hateful the brushes were. How ugly and preposterous. How bullying. How each long thin brush ought to suffer as she had suffered.

She uncapped her paints, pulled out a canvas, and set to work drowning a brush by the hair.


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