S I S T E R
First published in BLACK STATIC #31.
AFTER MY SISTER DIED, in the appalling silence which filled our home, I made an effigy from the store of materials in her studio. I had never made anything before, never sung or played an instrument, never painted or drawn a thing in my life, but in that desolate winter I found myself imagining this figure in the empty spaces of our house, this odd likeness of my sister which was not my sister, and it seemed only natural to set about the task of making it. The flax fiber and plaster, the glue and the clay, segments of broomsticks and dowel rods I took from the cupboards in which she had kept her supplies: in the shadows there I found palettes scabbed with paint alongside bottles of black ink and stiff brushes, pots of glue, sharp knives and crepe paper, tangled wigs and soldered jewellery, all kinds of fabric and card, charcoal sticks and knots of string, disassembled mannequins and wounded plastic figurines, a hoard of oddments and trinkets and tools, and that smell, which was the smell of all of these things in the cupboard and also, unmistakably, the scent of my sister working: for a moment - I do not know how long - it overwhelmed me, and I crouched there in silence for a while; I remember swaying with sudden dizziness when I stood up again, and nearly falling to the floor. In her bedroom, in the shuttered gloom, in the bottom drawer of her chest of drawers, I found a few items of clothing - socks, a crumpled blouse, a neckerchief - which I would tear into strips and stitch into some new garment for the model, fervently hoping all the while that my parents would not notice their disappearance from the drawer.
(The day before in the living room my mother had slapped me hard across the face, drawing blood from my cheek: I had gone into my sister’s room and taken a book on sculpture down from one of her shelves. My mother had noticed the change immediately; I think, whenever she entered the room, she scanned the arrangement of items for such subtle changes. My sister’s room was a museum, a place of silent reverence where one might look but must not touch, and the precise effect of everything arranged as she had left that space was the delicate and terrible exhibit: to move one thing damaged it in its entirety, as if each object were the keystone. Unaltered, one could imagine my sister returning, seamlessly resuming the life she had left. When she struck me, my father did not speak, only glowered in his chair, and I knew then that he hated me. I felt the cut on my cheek and saw the blood on my fingertips. Nothing must change, she told me. I promised her I would put it back. And makebelieve that nothing has changed? At the thought of this my mother snarled, then turned away toward the mantelpiece, from where framed photographs of my sister watched the room. Later, when my parents were sleeping, I restored the book to its place on the shelf, and in the upstairs bathroom, by the moonlight shining through the window, examined the cut upon my cheek in the dusty glass of the mirror.)
I worked on the figure in my bedroom, in the attic of the house: I could well imagine the anger that would greet me if I used my sister’s studio. I had, as I said, never shown any aptitude or particular interest in art, but the work furnished me with purpose where I had felt listing and directionless. I had found something to concentrate upon, and which would, for hours at a time, distract me from my own anger and despair. I suppose I poured my grief into the work, though at the time I did not think of it this way, and the work absorbed me. I used my sister’s tools to shape the clay and flax and wood, and would later dress the effigy in the new garment I had made. When my spirit flagged, when the work grew difficult and its finishing seemed beyond me, I would return to her bedroom, and take something, some possession of hers (a doll named Poupée, a white rock the shape of an ostrich’s egg, a photograph which she had taken of me aged around seven years old, a nervous and diffident child, though I could not remember her taking it), and study it, feel its weight in my hand, its special heft, close my eyes and examine the idiosyncrasies of its shape with open palms and fingertips. Doing this, it seemed, released some energy pent up in the object or else inside myself, and I would return to my work on the sculpture revitalised, alive again to the possibilities of the clay, to the figure I knew was already present inside it, who I merely had to extract. Afterwards, I would of course return the object to the room, placing the rock that was not an egg back on the dresser or balancing the photograph of myself back against the candle on the dusty mantelpiece, hoping, again, that my mother would not notice any change in the arrangement of things.
The winter became a dismal spring of downpours and cold breezes, scarce sunshine seldom penetrating the clouds. The summer, albeit clammy, was no better; only the temperature improved, though even on the warmest days it was cold inside our house, a creaking building riddled with drafts: then soon it was autumn, as if the summer had never been. At length, after nine long months of work, of sketches and drafts and discarded attempts, I realised I had finished, although a certain dissatisfaction troubled me: the model fell short of what I had wanted, in some uncertain but vitally significant way, though I had reached the conclusion that there was nothing I could do now to bridge the gap between what I had made and what I had sought, nothing I could add to it that would not reduce it; and so it seemed there was nothing left for me to do with the figure except present it to my parents.
Our family dinners were silent affairs. I had not heard my father speak in a long time and indeed had sometimes wondered if his grief had rent his voice and made him mute. He and I sat at opposite ends of the long dinner table, my mother in the middle to my left, the empty space where my sister would have sat opposite her. My mother, in whispers shaded with irritation, directed proceedings: pass your father the salt, she would murmur, or hiss, though he had not made any motion to suggest he especially wanted the salt, and due to the length of the table I would have to leave my chair and carry the grinder to his side. Hold the fork in your left hand, Daniel, not your right. Please, eat with your mouth shut - I doubt your father wants to see you chewing. May I have the pepper, Jonathan?
After I had finished swallowing that mouthful of food, I glanced up, then looked at her, blinking, focusing, and she returned my gaze with a look of blank expectation. It was at this point I realised I could feel the dread in my gut. My mother was clearly waiting now: she knew I had something to say, and I knew then that I was committed to what I had decided, without fully understanding it, to do. I looked down at my plate, at the boiled vegetables I had listlessly moved around on the plate and hardly eaten.
“What is it, Daniel?” my mother asked.
Anxiety made speech difficult. “I have something to show you,” I said at last.
She held my gaze, then a moment later began to nod. “Very well,” she said. “After dinner.”
“Yes,” I murmured. “Of course. Sorry.” I don’t know why I apologised.
“Daniel has something to show us, Jonathan,” she said, raising her voice abruptly, and my father nodded without looking up from his food.
I had begun to feel nauseous. The autumn wind rattled the windows of the room. Bits of stone, dislodged, could be heard falling in the chimney breast. I stared for a while with some intensity at the place where my sister would have sat, as if I might have divined there in her absence her opinion of what I was to do. As if that void might offer counsel. I tried, unsuccessfully, to calm myself. I tried to concentrate.
As I waited, I scratched the cut upon my face. That morning I had noticed that the scab which had formed over the cut, and begun to itch quite maddeningly, which I had now absentmindedly disturbed, had turned a sickly yellow colour, edged with green. It stung now, bleeding anew, but my nervousness and anticipation overshadowed the pain.
After dinner, we went upstairs, to my sister’s study on the seventh floor, where she had worked when she was able. Though I had fashioned the model in the attic room where guests, when we had entertained guests, would have stayed, I had decided that the study was the appropriate room for the model’s unveiling. In this place it would achieve a fullness of effect doubtless unavailable anywhere else. I had braced myself for some act of violence, for my mother’s fury, for my father’s weary distaste, but in the event nothing of the sort occurred.
As I laid my hand on the handle of the door, I glanced back at my parents, stood side by side without touching one another behind me. In the dim light of the landing my father, a tall man and a once commanding presence, seemed reduced, hunched and tired, out of breath from the effort of climbing the stairs. Dust hanging in the air made me cough into my hand. I looked at my mother, and she nodded. Then I opened the door.
It is three years now since I presented the model I had made to my parents, and three years since my sister resumed her life. She is a quiet, uncertain presence in the house; she seems to think a good deal before moving - the frightening spontaneity that had characterised her before her sickness is gone. At dinnertime she sits opposite my mother at the table, though she only moves her food around upon her plate and does not eat. She seldom speaks. She doesn’t meet my gaze. I know my parents are hopeful that one day that faculty will return to her in its entirety, but they know that she has been through a lot and that it cannot be forced. They are glad she is here, though I have begun to suspect that they, through some act of will, have forgotten that she died at all. As I say, she has resumed her life, all but seamlessly, but for her muteness and her lack of appetite. And her smell has changed: she smells like the store room in which she still keeps her supplies, mingled with soap and talc and sweat, long settled dust and a certain dampness like washed clothes left too long in the machine. When she feels able, she works in her study. Sometimes I have entered the room and seen her simply sitting there in her chair, unmoving, as if waiting very quietly and very patiently for something to happen, and I know she has not heard me. Before her return, before the illness and its unsuccessful treatment had dulled her senses, she had always seemed to me almost supernaturally alert, more alive in herself than I had ever known myself to feel, more sharply present in the world, though now she gives the impression that she is moving through dense fog. I have seen her in her room, one of her books open on her lap, looking at the pages as if she has forgotten how to read.
We do not speak of her death. My mother does not allow it - she has never mentioned it, and I know the topic is proscribed. Perhaps she has forgotten entirely, perhaps she believes that if we do not speak of it, acknowledge it, permit its thought and expression, then it will cease to have been the case.
Several months after her return, she started painting again. I would watch her from the doorway and she never gave any indication that she knew that I was there. She paints her limbs or else the features of her face, delicate and exquisite work for which she does not seem to need the aid of any of her mirrors. Sometimes I have seen her re-stitching the stuffed fabric of her torso. I suppose I left the task unfinished, though I know I did as good a job as I could manage. Her seams are smoothed away. The awkward assemblage I fashioned is acquiring a kind of grace. I am writing this, now, in my attic room, to remind myself, so that my mother’s will and forcefulness won’t compel my own forgetting. In the mirror on my desk I can see the scar upon my cheek. It reminds me. Sometimes it itches, and numerous times in my sleep, filled with dread and agitation, I have scratched it myself and torn a fresh cut in the skin: in this way the injury persists. Somehow it comforts me. Downstairs I can hear my sister laughing with my mother, whose laughter is rather too forced for my liking, as if she is demonstrating that she can laugh and daring anyone who might overhear her so laughing to doubt the sincerity of her good humour. When my sister tries to speak, she lisps and spits, but with the help of speech therapists she is slowly learning how to shape words with her mouth once again.
She has never thanked me for what I did.
The night before I presented the model to my parents, I had a dream, and in that dream I learned what I was to do. The model had fallen short of the ideal I had pursued, but now I knew what I had to add to it, a simple thing that would not reduce it in that way that I had feared. From one of her sketchpads in her studio I tore an edge of paper, and with a piece of charcoal from the pot in the adjacent storage room scrawled the letters of her name, in the clearest lines I could manage, upon it. Before dinner, after setting up the model of my sister in her studio, in the chair before the window, I opened its jaw and placed the piece of paper in its mouth.
I did not expect it to work. I did not expect my sister to return.