My sister hangs from the clothesline like a ghost, a slip of white against a backdrop of tangled growth.
I say this coldly, the flat tone designed to pry her off the rope tethered between two maple trees. She is shorter than me, still a child; her feet dangle like a Hangman above the grass in the midday sun, the sky a similar blue to the folded napkins I placed on the table for mourners. The blue napkins were left over from a happier gathering, folded carefully into the drawer alongside the plates too big to fit in the cupboards.
You’re being rude.
I cross my arms as I watch the back of her defiant head, the breeze tossing her brown curls carelessly.
I’m going in.
I stand still, though, and wait for her to drop, the sound of grief sealed tight behind the sliding glass door. Grandma’s lady friends loiter around the cucumber sandwiches and the torn iceberg lettuce coated in French dressing; the lunch didn’t take long to make. I also put out a dish of gherkins and jarred olives with a small serving fork, a tiny weapon that could spear an eye like a cocktail onion. Our father picks the olives up with his fingers when he thinks I’m not looking, ignoring the ruthless niceties.
I am prepared to wait. I know my sister does not succumb easily; she has spent most of her life resisting.
Grandma was nothing like my mother. She was constant, the floral house dress she wore a background blur in the kitchen, like the persistent smell of roast beef and potatoes rising from the oven. She knew how to make tiny cuts out of sharp words, superficial wounds that scabbed quickly but, surprisingly, stayed with you. Her death was timely, at eighty. Her friends feel differently, though, I can tell by the way they shake their flossy heads, one of the youngest among us, they whisper, gone.
The memory of my mother is a sticky treat saved for too long, a caramel apple, hard to get at and unsatisfying. I have a photo of her tucked under my physics text book; her straight brown hair falls to her shoulders, her loose jeans tucked into black rain boots. Her arm is around me, a wide smile on her face, my unknown sister still hidden beneath her coat. When I look closely, I can see dark circles under her eyes. My face is innocent in the picture, the face, I like to think, of a well-adjusted nine year old.
My sister alters her grip. I imagine the rope biting into the flesh of her hands; this thought makes me happy.
When my sister was a new born, my mother kept bleeding, at first with acceptance and then one morning with fear. The smell of iron and salt was thick in the upstairs hallway, a choking smell that alarmed me while my sister cried. My father carried my mother out of the bedroom; she was pale as a moth, her breath fluttering. We wrapped my sister in a receiving blanket and dropped her off at my grandma’s on the way to the hospital. My mother was also wrapped in blankets, the blood a nebulous ink stain on her lower back. The nurses took her away as soon as we got there; I followed my father through the maze of cold hallways to the waiting room, the smell of antiseptic nauseating under the hum of the fluorescents.
We waited in silence. The plastic chair was hard and blue; there was a line of more comfortable chairs with padding but I stayed on the plastic one. I clicked my nails against the surface while I drank from a can of cream soda. My father had given me change from his pocket without counting it and I had twenty cents left over to keep; I took a sip and let the acid bubbles burn my tongue for a few seconds before swallowing.
When the doctor walked toward us with a furrow on his face, I held the pop can loosely in my fingers, felt the weight of half empty.
She’s gone, he said. There was nothing we could do; she had lost too much blood.
I envisioned the doctor trying to stop the bleeding with an enormous pile of blankets, my mother underneath, staining everything red.
As I examined my father’s face for cues, I felt him implode. He crumpled as the doctor reached out to catch him and I let go of the cold can, pink fizz exploding around my feet; my father’s shock ripped along the center of me to meet my own, a collision of energy birthing a black hole where something stable had once been, a yawning emptiness with infinite pull.
I uncross my arms and watch my sister shimmy along the rope toward the bigger of the two trees, her feet hanging a little higher now. The vantage point won’t change the pain.
My father is suspended in a gravitational shift the colour of blood. I see the guilt that keeps him there; he hovers at the event horizon of this crushing darkness, biding time until my sister is old enough to live without him. So far my sister has resisted, never comes close enough to get caught. She senses the danger.
I watch her feet shift; I watch her hands search the rope for the next minute, looking for reprieve. I watch my sister’s back, my own turned on the grief in the kitchen, the glass of the sliding door cool against my spine.
She finally drops, rubs her reddened hands together. The wind ruffles her hair again as if trying to sooth her. A defeated curl flutters.
And I feel relief, like I have won.