I remember lying down between cool cotton sheets at dusk, when the black naught in the corner of our once shared bedroom would yawn awake. I was always sent to bed early the night before the big trip to Tawas, even though I was old. I’d ignore the sentinel thing—it and I had an unspoken agreement—and look out the window to watch the dim white stars stir silvery blue in an inky sky. What if I could pull down the night? I’d wonder, and imagine thick wet panes falling to the earth. Other times, I’d try to hear the sound of God’s choir. A sound so awesome is something unfathomable, though, so I’d end up falling asleep to the memory-sound of your perfect breathing. I didn’t realize when you were alive that the resonance of your young lungs was far more marvelous than any song sung by the stars.
It was your breathing I was dreaming of when the scent of cheap white musk and smoldering tobacco woke me. I can’t tell you how many goddamned times I’ve asked our mother not to smoke inside the house. I was awake, and couldn’t help but listen. She was in the kitchen, washing dishes and talking to my tabby cat.
“Milton, your mama needs to wake up,” she told him. “Yes, she does.”
I wasn’t ready to start my day. I wanted to stay in bed, wrapped up in Peter, and watch the rise and fall of white cotton sheets for a little while longer. Or close my eyes and go back to dreaming. In my sweet sleep, you were sat on the beach, building sandcastles and exhaling gusts of wind so strong, you sent the clouds sailing across the sky. You were wearing that ugly hand-me-down bathing suit. The pink one with daisies printed all over.
Rising orange-pink sunlight penetrated my eyelids, and I turned away from the window. The birds sang, and their songs filled me with dread. A shadow hovered above me, and I was afraid to open my eyes again; not of seeing the reemergence of the black naught’s non-eyes that had abandoned me months ago, but afraid I’d see your milky ones, accusatory, staring down at me from your waterlogged face. Of course, I have no real idea what you’d looked like after you were recovered from the lake.
“Mags, are you awake?” Peter’s voice was gentle, just above a whisper.
When I didn’t answer, he poked me in the rib cage. I giggled, but didn’t open my eyes. I could tell he was watching over me with his softly mottled spheres of blue and bursts of golden sunlight. You know you really love a man once you’ve memorized every feature of his brilliant irises. His fingertips glided down the length of my neck and came to rest over my throbbing heart. I looked at him then. “Why won’t you come with me? I don’t like being alone with her.”
“You’re going to be okay, Mags. You’re the strongest, most resilient person I know. Your will is the wind. It’s powerful, even when it’s blowing softly.”
“My will is the wind? Did you make that up just now?”
“Yeah. But I’ve always known it.”
I rolled over to straddle his body. “You’ll be here waiting for me after it’s all over?”
“You know I’ll be waiting.”
“I love you, Peter.”
“I love you, too, my pretty bird.”
And my heart went tweet, tweet.
The humor isn’t lost on me that I’m named Magpie and suffer such a great fear of birds. Sure, they can be lovely to listen to and look at from a fair distance, but really they’re all fiendish creatures. I don’t like them coming near me. I don’t like the look I see when I see them looking back at me. There’s something diabolical going on behind those black, beady eyes. Some scheme to take me by surprise.
Do you know, Renny, that I had a pet bird once? For about a week. He was a blue and white parakeet. Quite pretty. I called him Hector, and I would curse at him in Spanish. Something like, come mierda, hijo de puta. He would shuffle his ugly, twiggy feet, and turn his head from side to side in that bizarre, ultra-rapid sort of way. The poor fellow knew I didn’t care much for him. Sometimes when I think about him, I regret killing Hector. He escaped his cage one day, and I panicked. I found him stunned, lying still on his back on the kitchen floor. I placed a clear plastic bowl over his body and pressed lightly against the linoleum until he suffocated.
Funny, I don’t recall having a bird phobia as a kid. In fact, I remember you and me chasing them, trying to catch them. Cardinals were your favorite, and I preferred Robins. Mom would laugh at us from the back porch, watching us fall over ourselves. You’d call out, here birdy- birdy-birdy.
Now, I’d give anything to catch but a glimpse of you, little Wren. The way you were at ten years old. It’s because of you I keep birdhouses in my garden. Every day I await a message from you. Why don’t you talk to me? Hardly anyone talks to me. Or Peter. Most of this goddamned town decided we’re pariahs before we’d even unpacked the moving van. Funny, my social status doesn’t keep anyone out of my boutique; my floral arrangements are appreciated, at least.
I found her sitting at the patio table sipping green tea and re-reading week old celebrity gossip magazines. She was already dressed for the day in a mint green tank top and cut-off shorts.
“Morning, Mom.” I immediately regretted the sharp tone of my voice.
“Morning, baby girl.” She eyeballed my night shorts and t-shirt. “You slept in a little bit. I thought I was gonna have to send Milton in to get you.”
“That poor cat. You woke him too early, I think. He’s dreaming now in his favorite kitchen chair.”
“I thought he’d be in the bay window, talking at the birds. Look at them all in your garden. You should really have more birdhouses. I know you have some weird fear of them, but you’ve gotta admit, they’re awful pretty.”
“As long as they don’t come too close, I can enjoy them.”
“You’re strange, Magpie. I saw a cardinal earlier. Cardinals were your sister’s favorite. Remember?”
“I do. Renny wanted one desperately.”
“She wanted all the birds, though, didn’t she?”
“I miss my little sister.”
No response. She’d gone all glassy-eyed and slack-jawed, suddenly dumb. Reminded me of that vacant look she used to get whenever she’d had enough to drink. Her eyes were fixed on the flowerbed, but I knew it was you she was watching, and not my bleeding hearts. She saw you out past the buoys, thrashing and splashing, crying for help between fatal gulps of Lake Huron. It wasn’t a real memory, just a fabrication. A violent scene sprung from a mother’s grief. She wasn’t even on the beach that afternoon. I was. And I’ve relived that moment thousands of times over. That moment when you’ll die thousands of times more.
The sun had been full that day, a disc fierce yellow against a perfect blue sky. The beach was crowded at the swash, the dry sand too hot to be tolerated, and the lake was absolutely heaving. There were so many bodies, too many bodies, and nobody noticed you were sinking. Nobody, but me. You died, Renny. And that’s when the black naught was born.
“Mom, are you okay?” I knew she wasn’t. She’d allowed her cigarette to burn down to nothing, and the breeze had blown ashes all over the deck. I hate ashes. I see ashes, and I’m reminded of the scattering. “Mom?”
“Bleeding hearts have always been your favorite.” Her head was veiled anew by curling grey filaments. She inhaled deep drags and exhaled slowly, savoring the sort of calm that only nicotine can deliver. “Remember the garden we had when you and your sister were little?”
“I remember.” Foxgloves, moonflowers, daffodils, and bleeding hearts. Mom’s treasured roses. You too, loved the roses best. I despised the thorns, but they were only a minor nuisance to you. You and Mom always tended to the roses while I kept to the kinder beds. And every Saturday afternoon, after we all washed the dirt from our hands, Mom would stretch a blanket upon the grass, and we would have a picnic; peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches, and ice-cold bitter tea served from the fancy glass pitcher. I often dream of our garden tea parties, and when I awake, I swear I awake with the taste of those summer Saturday afternoons clinging to my tongue. I dream of the yellow speckled evenings, too. Mom and Dad sit in lawn chairs, drinking bottled beer while you and I catch lightning bugs with gossamer nets.
I’d rather live within these memories. In the present, my life is a simple space crowded with ambiguity. I often stand still and stare at my neighborhood. It appears oddly obscure in the terrific daylight, insubstantial like a watercolor world. I find myself raising my hand, as if to smudge the pigments. Wipe them into blankness for something new and solid to be made. Nothing happens. Nothing ever will. I’m not in the midst of a breakdown, only August.
“I’m worried about you, Magpie.” She spoke abruptly, and smoke billowed from her mouth and into my face. “You’ve been really different lately. Like you were after Wren died. I need you to pull yourself together. I need you to be strong for me.”
“I have always been strong for you. But you’ve never been for me.”
Her face twisted and turned red, but it was still a beautiful face. I saw you in her face, Renny. I always do. Had you grown to womanhood, no doubt there’d be little difference between you two. When we were children together, I envied your raven dark hair and springtime eyes, and I would pray to God at night that he’d correct his mistake with me. But after you died, I was thankful not to resemble our mother. Makes me wonder how she can bear her own reflection.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that, Mom. I’m sorry.”
Her hands trembled as she wiped her eyes. “Baby girl, would you do me a favor? Would you cut some of your flowers to take with us? I thought we’d take a boat out, and we’d toss them into the lake for Wren. She’d like that, I think.”
“That’s a stupid idea. It’s stupid how you’ve turned that goddamned lake into a shrine. Every year we go Up-North, and we rent the same goddamned cabin. You know I don’t go for Renny. I only go for you.”
“You feel guilty. That’s why you go.” She didn’t sound angry, just tired. I was tired, too, of having the same conversation year after year.
“What do you want me to say that I haven’t already said? How many more ways can I beg forgiveness?”
“It doesn’t matter what you say, or how many times you say you’re sorry. Wren will always be dead.” She was absolutely right. All I could do was turn away from her, and swallow my mouthful of venom.
I hate the day you were born. I said this to Mom once, and she slapped me hard across my face. She never does understand the meaning of things I say. I do hate the day you were born, not because I don’t love you, but because your absence crushes me. Tomorrow is your eighteenth birthday. Your eighth death-day. I don’t know that you’re aware of birthdays, ordinary days, and the passage of time. I don’t know that you’re aware of anything at all, but I talk to you anyway. Do you hear me, Renny? Can you read my thoughts? Do you know how much I hate going to the lake? I would rather visit a quiet green cemetery, where I could deliver flowers and love letters to a grand marble headstone. I know it doesn’t really matter where I go to honor you. You’re everywhere I look, yet nowhere to be found. You’re no more a part of the water than you would be part of the earth, had you been returned to it. But you didn’t drown in dirt, and I suppose that’s what makes the difference for me. The lake is evil, and I don’t like to remember you there. I only go for Mom. She doesn’t understand my position at all.
I like to imagine that Heaven exists, because if it does, I know your soul dwells there with the angels. And if that’s true, you must have awareness of the lives that go on without you, below you. I think you must be my guardian. I’m always telling Peter he was sent to me. Divine intervention. Maybe it was you who sent him. Maybe I’ll see you again someday. I can hope, right?
I’ll always remember the first time I saw you, little sister. A nurse stood beside me at the nursery window, and I saw Dad holding you up, smiling. In his arms, you were a delicate face with rosy lips and wide eyes staring out from behind the folds of a pink blanket. Your skin was so pale, your hair black as night. I was in awe of you. I couldn’t wait to hold you. I told the nurse you were the very best birthday present in the entire universe.
You were difficult from day one, though. You nearly drowned in Mom’s blood while she was giving birth. You had to be taken by C-section, and Mom required a blood transfusion. I think you were fated to drown. The last time I saw you…
I hate you, God. If you can hear me, I want you to know how much I hate you. Why did you take her? Why do you take the ones who have something beautiful to offer this fucking ugly world? I had faith in you once. But my faith died in that lake with my sister. Shit. Are you even real?
“Magpie, look at me.” She ran her fingers through my hair. “I love you, baby girl.” When I was little, Mom would rest my head in her lap and run her fingers through my hair whenever I was sick. She’d tell me that my hair was like fine strands of sunshine. “Maggie, listen to me.”
“Don’t call me Maggie.”
“Why won’t you look at me?” She reached for my chin and I smacked her hand away from my face.
I said, “Jesus Christ, will you go away? Leave me alone for a while.” I didn’t care where she went off to as long as she left my sight.
Mom came to stay with Peter and me last month. What choice did she give me? She’s lost everything attached to her name, gambling. At first she was concerned that Peter would be annoyed by her presence. Funny, she’s no bother to him whatsoever. Only a bane to me. She noses around at night, cleaning my house and rearranging the pictures on the walls. I had forgotten what it’s like to live with her; the smells, the quiet sounds, the low lights burning at two in the morning.
Can you remember your childhood, Renny? Those nights when Mom would wake you up with the smell of sandalwood incense smoldering, and the stereo playing so softly? You’d sneak down from your top bunk and crawl into my bed. You’d whisper in my ear. I can still hear your voice. Maggie, get up. Let’s see what Mom is doing. It was always the same scene. She’d be drinking wine and moving furniture all by herself, just passing the time until Dad arrived home from work.
Since Mom’s been here, the black naught has not, and I find myself awakened by the ghost of your warm breath in my ear every night. I go into the living room and find her in dim light, moving things, just passing the time. Only Dad isn’t going to come home to her. He stopped coming home to her a long time ago. Tragedy does things to people. Ugly things. I’d just turned sixteen the last time Dad came home to our one upon a time ago house. I was dangling my pruned feet in the swimming pool when he pulled into the driveway. I’d been dangling my feet alone for a long, long time, wanting so badly to feel my body cool and weightless, willing myself to stand up and dive. Dad pulled in and I forgot about swimming.
I watched him get out of the truck and head straight for the garage. And then Uncle Dana pulled in with his own truck. He paused, barely a second, and waved at me before he went inside the house. I wanted to go see what was happening, but I didn’t even twitch. I just watched Dad go in and out of the garage, loading his things into the bed of his pick-up. He looked at me once, squinting hawk-like into the sunlight. He raised a hand to his brow. I called to him, but he only turned away from me and went into the house. Then I heard Mom shrieking and weeping. She followed Dad in and out, back and forth. I didn’t want to watch as all of Dad’s shit was being carried out and loaded up, but I didn’t look away. Maybe because what I was seeing was so fucking unbelievable, or…I don’t know, Renny. I just don’t. Uncle Dana came over to the pool before he and Dad left, and what he said to me, I will never forget; Magpie, sometimes your brother needs your help doing something, and even though you know he’s wrong, you help him anyway. Because he’s your brother.
A few hours later, Dad sent for me and my things, only I wasn’t going to live with him. He’d taken out his pocketknife and cut a dad shaped hole into my heart when I was dropped off at Grandma and Grandpa Carey’s to live out the rest of my old adolescence. At least the black naught felt compelled to keep me, unlike our mother who didn’t fight for me. The entity followed me as a guardian should, taking up new space in a new corner, and when I put head to pillow at night, I felt less abandoned.
© 2019 Kindra M. Austin