The Guest | Mackenzie Singh

My name is Anjali Amos. I’m thirty-four-years old. I am a mattress person. I have brown skin and brown hair and a molar missing on the left side of my mouth. At some angles my nose is considered large and for as long as I can remember I have chewed, relentlessly, my bottom lip. Living in a mattress is not so bad. I am a dream weaver, a puppeteer of dormant thoughts. No, that’s no good. Let me instead describe to you the room. There is a window with white blinds. A clock with an audible second hand. One bed. The adjoining bathroom smells often of mint.

It is unimportant to know but I shall tell you anyway that it was not a beautiful morning the day I met the man. Perhaps met is the wrong word. Fine, then—saw.

As it was my first time seeing him, I paid close attention to his mannerisms, which seemed rooted in a circumstance I had yet to gauge. Like any mattress person, I have had my fair share of guests. Sometimes, they stay for weeks. Sometimes, days. On occasion, hours. Always, my observations are honed against limitation, which is to say, the fixed domain of my mattress.

On that day, I watched the man remove his coat and position himself in front of the mirror. He leaned on the mantle and exhaled; angular body compromised by a small gut that challenged his pant line. After a skeptical look at himself he straightened and rubbed his face. Then, he laughed. It was a frightened, untrusting sound, as if the image before him did not match the one he maintained. This, I knew, was grief. I recognized the way it chewed his shoulders.

Eventually he laid down and I watched him sleep for some time. He had black hair that curled gently at the temples and his forehead accommodated lines that promised disarming attentiveness. I ran my finger over a small bump on his nose and across lips that parted for even spaced breaths. Though he had not spoken, I imagined a lenient voice. My profile hovered over his and I said, Nice to meet you; I am Anjali Amos. There was no danger of waking him. Mattress people cannot be heard. They cannot be seen. Mattress people are only felt.

The man did not dream that night. He rose once to use the toilet, then stumbled into bed and threw aside blankets as if in protest of common comforts. The moon bore down. His body flinched.

I have been a mattress person all my life. Though we are under no obligation to ameliorate pain, I had taken a liking to the man. Indeed, there are mattress people who are cold and cruel. I admit, I have given a terror once or twice. I’ve made people thrash in silence, wake in sweat. Each time I’ve regretted it and resolved to be less hospitable to my whims.

On this particular night, I did no such thing. I wove the man soft shapes and softer colors; a skein of warm wool. At the tug of sadness, I made it carry not lamentation but stillness so that he might feel within it his own strength. I wove a tunnel of kaleidoscopic light through which I urged he glance; geometric imperatives—to wield, I whispered—against the authority of grief.

In the morning, he righted himself and sat perfectly composed on the bed’s edge. When I thought he might rise, he fell into tented hands and wept. I watched uselessly. Mattress people come to power only in the throes of sleep. At one time, this would have troubled me. Often, I have succumbed to the mischief that results from wanting to make my small world big. Once, I made a young boy sleep beyond acceptable perimeters after bestowing a dream I wished to continue.

As for the man, his weeping was brief. He looked up and stared fixedly at objects around the room. I wondered what he saw and if piece by piece he was trying to conjure purpose for them the way someone scrutinizes a hand gesture that exceeds intent—in this case, a lamp, why it was there, and if he could remember, as in an argument, the point of the thing.

A knock at the door did not surprise him. An older woman entered whose composure he appeared in earnest to mimic. He stood and spoke casually, hands in pockets, shoulders braced as if against a bite of bad weather. Occasionally, he’d throw his head back then nod thoughtfully at his feet, an obliging word rendering his mouth soft. When she hooked an arm around his waist, his body turned abiding. He left in a black suit.

I have had many mourning guests. What I watch for are routes. The means by which sadness makes itself known. Take a woman who became the unlikely host to a persistent song. She would hum a few notes before latching to the same word of a refrain. It was a fidelity so incongruous with spirit that she became maddened at finding herself compromised in such an unusual way. Anytime she was asked a question, she sang. It became, I imagine, a way to conceal what staked claim in too private a way. It continued for weeks.

All I can say for the man is that he was meticulous. When he returned it was not raining but the sky was uncaring. He folded a yellow raincoat in perfect thirds. He removed his shoes which he nosed by the door. He unbuttoned one cuff. He sat on my mattress and smoothed the white pillow with placating palms. Nearby, the sound of laughter rose from a house. The room grew dark, the air was still. He fell asleep with hands secured neatly beneath a cheek.

I never plan my work in advance. A mattress person’s duty does not stem from benevolence but impulse. As the eyes of a guest close, their face slackens and all life concentrated in the limbs vanishes. It is against such defenselessness that mattress people realize the leanings of their hearts.

That night I wove the man the promise of a new day. The breathing sky, the morning crow’s navy streak, a palm peeled clean of callous, a whisper: tree, mantis, color—green.

Permission to remember, this is how you name a thing.

Mackenzie Singh’s work has appeared in SAND Journal, Fiction Attic Press, SHiFT, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She was a prose finalist in Fugues 2022 writing contest, and shortlisted in the 2022 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize contest.