I remember being born, the deep red rush, the slippery vessel, the convulsion of tears and sweat, of not-wanting, then suddenly⎯the light. I don’t remember my mother. In bringing me to life, she’d retracted inside her body, an inversed dahlia, the multiple petals folding into itself. My sister, Allendy, was standing in the room’s corner facing the walls⎯⎯there was nowhere else to hide. Even as a child, she intuited courage, its correlations to silence, especially at a time one was expected to cry, to whimper under the weight of dismay and loss. My father had passed away nine months prior, crushed under the rock he was mining, before my mother had a chance to tell him about me. Was he still my father if he didn’t know I existed? That age-old question of whether a tree really falls in the forest if no one was there to hear it. In the womb, I’d been listening to my mother talk to her dead husband, her prayers that vacillated between gratitude for bearing his child and wishing God to lift such burden from her. During those nine months, I was my mother and she was I. Though we don’t talk anymore, I understand her more than she knows. Against God’s direction, I insisted on being born. I wanted to meet my sister.
The idea of being seemed intangible⎯after all, there was no instrument capable of quantifying presence. Allendy felt it only in relation to its negation⎯our mother’s non-being. My sister was seven years old and she tried to love me harder. Harder than the pervasive force of death, the ghost of our father, our mother’s gaze upon my wriggling body, uncomprehending and vacant. Perhaps this was how Allendy learned to understand love as compensation, a way to minimize damage, and I to see it as a life-line and to take whatever I could get, to generously reinterpret the failures to love as love itself.
Let me show you.
Show me what?
How it could be. You need to be sure.
My sister and I are in our thirties now. There is a silent ritual between us, like fall transitioning into winter, we are different but never too far apart. Allendy’s house overlooks a stream, circles of light twinkling on the surface, blue and purple-winged dragonflies buzzing inches from the ripples. Inside, the place is orderly, the rooms like musical measures that rise and fall softly, the furniture, hand-stitched lamp shades, dahlias blooming above the sink⎯a harmonious ensemble. We depend on this curated warmth, the uninherited objects purchased at prices higher than they’re worth. There is no artifact, no beloved painting or seasoned recipes from our family. Every ornate thing we own is made of small emptiness, but the eyes are so easily deceived and after a while, we could believe what we see.
We eat breakfast at the new bistro table Allendy had shipped from Portugal, the marble and sea glass top a mat and dull gray under the ceiling light. I swallow the tail of a fish.
“Can I stay here tonight?” I ask.
My sister nods. She doesn’t say anything else. I don’t remember if I’ve already done so, stayed, last night and the night before that, but the question reverberates as though it has traveled through time to get there. I realize I can’t recall any event in chronological order, the weeks and months stringing together like mucus. Thick. Blinding.
“Allendy, what happened⎯”
She puts her three fingers over the three knuckles of my right hand. “It’s alright.”
“What’s alright? I don’t understand.” I start to cry from frustration. White marble and sea glass, today. The day before, a halo of orange around milky white. And before that, willow green.
“Two days ago, you bought something green.”
She points to the jade bracelet on my wrist, “You remember colors.” She speaks as though she has said it a thousand times before, with resounding patience and kindness.
“What does that mean, I remember colors? Why can’t I remember anything else?”
My legs are shaking. I push my knees down to quiet them. The room begins to shift around me, objects crumbling and falling like sand down an hourglass.
“I’m here,” Allendy says. The cabin shakes, scrambling everything together, one by one paintings melt off the wall, light bleeds into darkness, the salt shaker spills, yet my sister and I are stilled, statued in place. Her fingers on my knuckles. My hand underneath hers.
Do you see now?
I am destined to forget.
I remember being born, the back of my sister’s head, a thin disk of light cutting across the room illuminating the sweat on my mother’s cheeks. I was to grow into reminders of my father, like a backward clock, each finger and toe the ghost of his being. He materialized before us with outline sharper than our own, his lips redder, his eyes obsidian and more vivacious than the three of us combined. There were little colors in my mother’s house, the duvet a washed-out unidentifiable shade, the walls dusty gray, perhaps having been white once, a small bookshelf and books with wrinkled spines, the titles fading. Like my father, I felt what it was like to be crushed, overcome by an insurmountable weight. I wondered if every newborn was accompanied by an individual spirit and where mine went if my father’s had gone into me.
“Can I sing her a song?” my sister asked the silent woman. My mother shrugged. Allendy stroked the birthmark on my cheek. “You’re an ugly one.” She sang a made-up tune about how I looked like a prune. She giggled at her own inventiveness. I couldn’t speak, but gurgled more energetically. I tried to tell her that I wasn’t supposed to be there, that right after our father’s death, our mother had tried to get rid of me standing over the toilet with a long needle. I’d heard my sister banging on the bathroom door, screaming stop it, stop it! Allendy had accidentally walked in on our mother. Though she didn’t understand what our mother was doing, her body absorbed the visual information more quickly than her mind. She pleaded to the silent door.
You insisted I came, Allendy.
Perhaps my sister knew that my arrival was also the return of our father’s spirit. Under my skin rippled the regret of an unfinished life. When I was nine, Allendy found me slicing my thigh with a serrated knife. She yanked it from me so quickly that she cut herself.
“Leyth?” she said, expecting a logical explanation, knowing there wasn’t one.
“I’m trying to free him,” I told her.
“Who?” she asked. “Free who?”
I explained that he was locked inside me, and I was trapped outside him. Allendy cried a lot then. She held me like a baby, though I was not much smaller than her. She said she was sorry she was constantly talking to our dead father and it had confused me. It was her fault, she claimed. Since my birth our mother had been clinging to silence as though it was an end in itself, as though the goal had always been to empty. Allendy talked out loud to our father because his non-reply was easier to bear and perhaps, also, because in our minds he was still fathering us in his own way. Still, my sister stopped praying for help, though we badly needed the idea of a protective God to quiet our night tremors.
As we huddled together in bed, we listened to our mother’s sticky footsteps on the floor boards in the living room, her pacing erratic, at times so slow we thought she’d gone, then suddenly, the sound of skin peeling off wood. Gray walls enclosed our days⎯⎯even the windows were too dusty to see through, and at night, our eyes detected our mother’s fluttering white robe, her colorless lips, her bloodless face amidst a gray dark. We were used to a single shade. But Allendy wanted more⎯she pulled the blanket over our heads and recounted tales of battles, dances, hunting expeditions as though she had been there herself. She described the colors in detail: carmine red blooming under the metal breast plates of knights, the yellow canaries flying above the battlefield against a sky thundering various shades of blue. She didn’t tell me then that her reference for red was from the lines of blood trickling down my mother’s thigh and yellow from the permanently stained mattress from our night sweat. She conjured unfathomable beauty from a single shade. Not even the shadow Death had cast over our home could convince me the world wasn’t waiting for us to fill in its colors from my sister’s dream palette.
“I’m here, I’m here.” Allendy’s voice echoes.
You’re here, but where am I?
I grip Allendy’s hands as the cabin’s walls come crumbling down around us⎯I squeeze my eyes shut, but it makes no difference. I still see everything.
“What’s happening? What’s happening?” My whole body cowers and I realize I must seem a frightened animal, but I can’t help it. “Why can’t I remember anything? A jumble⎯”
“It’s not that you can’t remember,” she says. “You remember everything, absolutely everything, but in a different order.”
The ceiling has pulverized to dust⎯white flakes suspended midair. Above us, the sky erupts into impossible colors. Each pigment is a needle through my vision, a tear through the fabric of time—memories cascading through me more tangible, more lively than the first time they happened, as though my body is a vessel that feeds and fills in their edges, their emptiness.
I want to give into gravity, fall to the ground, crawl to my sister, but am too afraid to leave my seat, the only parts of the house not shaking, held together by my sister’s hand over my knuckles.
“I’m disintegrating. Help me, please.” I beg.
“Stay with me,” my sister said. “We are in my living room. You are remembering. Nothing more.”
I remember the voice. As inside a chamber, it surrounded me and seemed to beat from my own heart.
Do you want to live even if it means your father will die? You are star-crossed. You cannot exist on the same plane at the same time.
Yes, I do. Yes, yes.
I remember my response coursing through the plasma of my still developing body, the ribcage only half-formed. The wanting of the unknown.
Let me show you one last thing.
Being born, the tragedy of it, the quiet bargain nobody quite knew one had to make. I tried to be a good child by being an easy one, a girl with few needs, no complaint, and like a pond I lied still as my mother’s tears fell like rain onto me. I reflected only her pain and tried not to show my own. Allendy warned me with her eyes⎯our mother wasn’t going to come back. That was what happened when death interrupted love⎯the spirit of the one left behind followed the departed to whatever new plane, new dimension, anywhere the body wasn’t, the flesh, organs, blood already betraying themselves, deteriorating from vacancy, soul-sickness.
“Shhh,” my sister said, extracting me from my mother who had fallen asleep with her hands encircling my throat. She sometimes played as though she was going to strangle me, but always stopped when I giggled. Allendy didn’t like this game.
“Stop bothering Mom. Especially when she’s not being herself.” My sister led us out of our mother’s bedroom.
Funny how people say someone isn’t being themselves as though there were a definite other self they could be, when anyone who has done a deliberate search would know how elusive the self has always been and how impossible it is to define an act as being in accordant or discordant with the self.
I don’t remember consecutive events assembled from sun rise to sun set, the meaning of a day evaporating like fog. Moments were like sands inside an hourglass and as the final grain reached the bottom, the hourglass would be flipped upside down to begin again. The inversed life, after all, was not so different than life itself—events scrambled and out-of-order still resurrect feelings acute and tangible as in dreams.
I remember being forgotten. Allendy and I were taking turns listening to the rumbling in each other’s belly. Pangs of hunger were to us an alien language, a cosmic message to be deciphered. The games kept us occupied for hours. Occasionally our mother looked up from her hands, shocked to see us. She smiled politely as though at strangers then went back to staring at her palms again, trying to recall a lost thing.
Perhaps the self isn’t something one could be, but something one remembers. Our mother’s spirit had forgotten her. I tugged on her ankle, feeling an urge to tickle her foot, to rouse her, but the leg⎯thin and blue-veined⎯didn’t seem a part of her any more than the pillow or the spiderweb in the ceiling’s corner. Allendy fixed up our mother as if she were a doll. She plugged weeds and the occasional stem of buttercups from the window planters and placed them on the hem of our mother’s night gown. We scratched at the wounds on my thigh and collected tiny drops of blood to smear on our mother’s cheeks.
“You’re beautiful, Mom,” Allendy said.
“Silly girls,” my mother said. These small utterances were our rewards. They marked the passing of time in a way the silence in our home had neglected to. The three of us giggled.
The ache of happiness.
“What is it?” Allendy asks. Her whole hand has enveloped mine. I cannot distinguish where we begin or end. “What did you see?”
“We were happy,” I said. “I thought we weren’t, but I felt⎯joy.”
My sister nods. She understands such peculiar fullness, the satisfaction of watching a drawing fill in with dimensions, moods, colors. The measure of a good life was perhaps impossible to grasp, but the isolated moments were blunt in their truth. Hunger and happiness coexist effortlessly.
“Why is everything out of order? Did something happen to me?”
“When you were young, you lost oxygen for a while and it affected your memory.”
“Do you remember⎯sorry, I mean, of course you don’t⎯the games you and Mom used to play. It just lasted too long, one time. It was an accident. We’ve forgiven her.”
My sister nodded.
Do you still want to live now that—
Now that what?
That you’ve seen what it could be⎯the life ahead.
What am I?
You’re not yet born. You’re still inside your mother.
I’ve lived already?
Not yet, I’ve shown you only fragments as I do to all spirits before they enter a body. To give you a choice. You won’t remember any of this after you’re born.
Would you like to meet your mother?
I want to meet my sister. She called for me.
Well, if you’re sure.
I remember being born, the back of Allendy’ head, the black of her curls, and then suddenly⎯a blanket of sun, its warmth trembling on my body, still sticky with blood. Upon hearing my first cry, she darted to the bed to see me. Her ear-to-ear grin. I reached for my sister. One’s reason to live should be so simple⎯one is wanted. That need for another to partake in our misery, at times so primitive, even an embarrassment, and yet⎯a grace.
Allendy, you insisted on me.