The Books of the Dead

By Ros Barber

This commission is part of the 'Crossing Borders' series.

She is. I am. 

She is very still in her body. The hard chair burns through her bones. Around her, the darkness of the kitchen ticks. Remains of something on a plate. A stubbed cigarette. Taken up out of hatred for her lungs, how they go on pulling the air in, as though her will to die means nothing. Inside, she’s gone dark, an abandoned building. Her soul contracted, cringing away from her skin: won’t touch it, disowns it, dislikes the sense of life upon it. Even the fragile warmth from the radiator curling its tendril towards her is foul, unwanted. Still life. Still more life. Who wants it, when it leads to this? 

Thought pools in her skull, and her skull leaks strands of thought which cannot be contained by bone because bone is not the edge of us, nor skin neither, so thought spills into her unlit room and radiates through her uncoloured walls and washes across her uncaring town, mingling with the earth-wrapping ocean of thought in which I am swimming on the other side of the world, in the heart of a shearwater skimming over the blue of Sydney harbour, because I never did get to go, never did get to, and now I go anywhere, until I feel the tug of her love, my name, and thought-swift I am sucked out of the heat of the day, the bird’s skin-and-feather, and I am with her, in this tight apartment in a coastal town, the very same sea that laps Australia wrapped around the earth to wash stones at the bottom of her road. Sister, I say. But she can no more hear me than a flower can hear a bee.

She is. I am.

I am dead. Dead! she says in the middle of brushing her teeth the morning after it happens. What happens? I wake up outside myself. My sister and I watch my barely breathing body. Her thoughts vibrate through me like horsehair on catgut: the half smile on my body’s lips confuses her. With my spirit removed, the reflex of its breathing will wind down to nothing. The next morning, we are brushing her teeth. Dead! she says, testing the truth of it in her ears, but denial’s a cushion. She’ll go to school, make this day like yesterday. Yesterday when she could still say something to my breathing face, though she doesn’t. She looks at the fat core of the last apple: an apple I’d asked her for but I couldn’t finish. She thinks about 

            holding my hand
            saying I love you
            kissing my cheek

but that isn’t us. We are talking through the bathroom door, teasing (me), swearing (her), throwing soft things at the head, goosing, larking. So no hold-love-kiss. If I do that, she thinks, he’ll know he’s dying. I know I’m dying. It’s she who doesn’t can’t won’t know, even though she’s been told to come in to say goodbye. 

She warms the seat our mother warmed, locks her senses to the ebb and flow of my crackling breath, to the gaps between each crackle, waiting for the next and the next, and not knowing what more to do until the quiet knock means she must make way for other goodbyes and let her hunger collar her to the kitchen, where she makes a flattened cheese-and-marmalade sandwich which she chews on as I die and for that reason won’t make again.

Dead! she says next morning as I watch her from nowhere, but the sound of the word doesn’t make it real any more than the sound of men carrying a body bag past her bedroom or the sound of our mother sobbing in the kitchen or the sound of nothing where my music used to be. 

On her way to school, I am wrapped around her shoulders like a cloak. Wherever my loss is felt I am there too: a blanket cosseting my mother, a jagged regret in a mate’s throat, my six-month-girlfriend’s suit of armour. My sister sketches a river delta and solves quadratic equations and slices through the pistil of a flower: labels the drawing stigma, style, ovary, ovule, underlining each term with a ruler. Making the day normal. Inside, a clamour: taking care is pointless as a snapped pencil.

Her mind blanks and I fly unfelt through old classrooms, exhilarated to be everywhere, slicing through gossip and the steam of school dinners. When I re-meet her in the queue for chips she hasn’t the throat space to eat, and her sadness is heavy as oil. Too thick to enter. Sister, I say, I am more here than you, and never so alive as this alive. But my voice is as lost to her as the note of a pin.

In double English she is paralysed. The teacher, who knows what has happened, doesn’t try to catch her out with a question about Mark Anthony's speech, or Portia's premonitions. But the second hour is for writing. Which she loves. But not today. The given title: The Worst Winter. Her mind becomes a hedgehog, curled up in an unlit bonfire. A woman from the 14th century, traipsing across a moor with her husband's sword strapped to her back. A child hiding in the bombed out basement of the old library. But each first sentence is aborted on the blade of reality. This is the worst winter. Here, now, with the snow falling across the playing field and erasing every detail: the painted lines of the athletics field, the goalposts, footprints, me. The page stays blank as the snow that will delay my funeral.

Without excusing herself she walks out of the lesson. Nobody stops her: grief gives her rights. The power to leave any room. Go anywhere, though the anywhere she chooses is that old stalwart, a toilet cubicle. The end of school bell brings a gaggle of girls to the mirrors, their voices modulated by scandal, of who did what with which boy where, and then the horror of her name slips out of a mouth, Did you hear her brother died?

As they feast on my death with their lipsticked beaks, she exits the cubicle, parting them like a prophet. Her pain is a medal, and she feels momentarily lifted. Then is battered by a tide of identical blazers surging through the corridors to escape. She didn’t mean to be the weird one who scribbles in notebooks. Or for her scribbling to make them self conscious, afraid she’s writing them, when she’s only exorcising anxiety, or describing how the moonlight stipples the cycle path, or a crafting a simile out of the nicotine stain on the goalkeeper’s fingers. 

The heroism of bereavement wears off quickly. Six weeks later in the cloakroom. Why are you crying? a girl asks, thick with sympathy, but when my sister answers My brother died, the girl is perplexed. You’re still upset about that?  Not understanding how slowly grief erodes. How sometimes it doesn’t erode, but grows. The travesty of coping keeps the mineral-filled tears dripping inside, incessant, creating stone, like calcium deposits in a cave. Thus grief builds its unknown, unvisited castle.

A castle she has carried through the last two years of school, then into university and out the other side, five years, and no-one the wiser. The castle has grown until, alone, she does nothing but stalk its corridors. Nothing can be said to anyone, and even her counsellor seems bored, is digging for some deeper layer, some trauma or perversion, as though the loss of a brother is not impressive enough, not cause enough, for the pull towards death. 

Until we are here in her kitchen, half way between midnight and dawn and she is wondering how to join me. Not that she thinks she'll join me. She believes in oblivion, Larkin's 'vast extinction that we travel to and shall be lost in always'. She has read that poem out loud to herself so many times that the lines trickle out of her like blood from a cut. This is her metaphor: we are thinking together. She imagines herself lying in a bath in shorts and a T-shirt (she would not let them find her naked), her life colouring the water. But she isn't a cutter.

She is paralysed by misery. By wanting and not wanting to die. Wanting to feel nothing but afraid to feel nothing. Forever nothing. What if that is worse than this? Then, to herself, what could be worse? Knowing the pain she would cause. Her mother, who has lost one child already, losing another. The hatred she would bring onto her dead head, when all she wants is love. If she knew she would be loved in death, she would do it. Even though she wouldn't directly experience the love. The promise of love would be enough. The promise of compassion. That someone might think, Poor Her, and not the dread she is certain accompanies her name on caller display. 

Not that she can call anyone now. Even our mother is bored of her misery, having put her own away beneath a tumulus of charity work and physical sports, and filling spare minutes with the minutes of boards of trustees: a community art gallery, a sustainable transport charity. The whole of our mother’s bereavement is filled with Good Works. 

My sister attempts to backfill her own void by making poems and stories out of her pain. But they only crystallise it. Bring a clarity to her loneliness. Which she exacerbates by reading her poems to men on first dates. She offers coffee, they expect sex, and just as their trousers flare she decants her crafted misery into their ears. Experiment: is desire a container? Conclusion: no. Not one hasn’t cracked and excused themselves. Both sides thinking: The package is fancy but the goods are rancid.

Why do the lungs insist on pumping? Autonomic nervous system. How can it be stopped? With poison. With pills. Put the whole caboodle to sleep, she thinks, and then she can rest. And she needs rest, she's tired of feeling as bad as she does. But her body is tricksy, determined to rescue itself. Ferocious, in fact, at keeping itself alive. Her stomach rejects any combination of chemicals that would assassinate her liver. Life is grim enough without covering yourself in vomit. 

She’s been working on a quieter form of suicide: starvation. The practicalities are easy, and she began it without noticing: when you have no appetite for life, it is simple enough not to eat. But again, the body is resilient. In six months nothing has passed her lips but coffee, red wine and high-tar smoke, yet she continues to wake and breathe, the body metabolising nutrition from fermented grapes and roasted beans, from the carbon and oxygen of nicotined air. Drawing stored resources from her hips, breasts and thighs until she is catwalk thin and drawing catcalls from strangers, which her mind metabolises in its own way as further reasons to leave the physical plane. She stands naked in front of the mirror, admiring society's idea of perfection: she has never looked so good, she thinks, nor felt so bad. Beneath the skin all her beauty has rotted away: she is thick with the tar of wanting to die.

I am running time across my senses like strands of hair. She has unfixed herself, and there are futures where she sits in a window seat in a light apartment, stroking a cat while her husband cooks supper, and futures where her young flesh, rotting quietly in an edge-of-town cemetery, nurtures the roots of a clutch of daffodil bulbs. In the futures where she breathes, her long dream of writing for a living has become as solid as the chair now burning into her sit bones. The stories she writes curl around the world like tendrils of a fast growing plant. Her understanding of herself has deepened and broadened until it is the understanding of others. Her words reach people standing, as she stands now, on the brink of their own undoing. In one of thousands of ripples they breach the loneliness of a boy who plans to drink bleach; he stops at the bottle top and his uncut life fathers three daughters, one of them a biochemist whose research will save many lives. This is one flickering strand of infinite possibilities that my sister's continuance creates. But for her, the future is dark: a blank nothing smattered with the possibility - to her, it feels like probability - of more pain than she can tolerate. A dissected  heart. Writing gasping for breath as it’s born, and returned in a manila coffin with a rejection slip. 

Grief has solidified and its weight has snuffed out every friendship. She doesn’t blame people for not wanting to be with her. She doesn't want to be with her either. It’s time to quit her own company. She engages her eyes. Surveys the havoc of the room. On the table, a small pile of my books. 

Three days after my death, she watches our mother pile black sacks by the garage. Some parents leave their children's rooms like mausoleums; untouched down to the hairs in the comb on the windowsill. Our mother goes for erasure. She lets my sister choose one thing, one small thing, she specifies. My sister chooses a silver signet ring, and threads it on a chain around her neck. She will not take it off, not even for Games (though the punishment is detention) and not for the next year’s boyfriend, who will ask her to. She hides it inside her clothes, a secret pass to her misery. But it isn’t enough. She thinks about the bin bags, being snowed on. 

She switches off the security light at the wall so it won’t trigger when she steps out into the darkness. I go with her. We look over my old attachments with curiosity, shivering. She cannot rescue everything. Where would she hide it? 

She pulls out one of the black hats our mother knitted for me when the chemo shredded my hair. I covered my baldness with the hat, and jokes, and when she holds it up on her fist like a knobbly puppet head she can see my face grinning beneath it. 

She rescues my favourite shirt, the denim blue one with pearl snappers I wore at nightclubs after the first operation, dancing on crutches, hand-washing it free of sweat and beer because I didn't trust our mother not to ruin it. Even in the January air it carries the ghost of my aftershave. 

She tucks into her pocket two cigarette butts (my mother has thrown away the whole ashtray), which she will later slip into a matchbox. Precious for being kissed by my lips and for prompting the line Hey, smoking hasn’t got time to kill me. Free pass! 

The last thing she adopts is the first thing our mother bagged: the books that piled up by my bedside when the crutch-dancing had stopped and we all knew what was coming.

Now they sit on her kitchen table and the titles are eyes blinking at her, saying What? What? Though she intended to read them, they’ve become decorations. This reality exhausts her will to be immersed in others. But as she considers leaving everything (that poem unfinished, that wine undrunk, these books unread) she wonders -- the thought is fleeting -- has she missed something? Did I leave her a message? The crack of her hope is my cue to speak.

Oh sister, I am making that message now, in the last week of my physical existence, because time is not linear, though I think it so until the minute after my last breath, and imagine this urge to turn down the corner of a page, and pencil line what resonates, is only to comfort my own soreness. 

Now she notices it, a small dent in the clean line of one book’s edge, the book of poems she gave to me once, when I said I liked hers.  She slides it out from the stack and opens it at the cornered page to read the lines I just marked for her, the fruit of her wishes, and mine: 

                         whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
                         it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

Tears. A decision. Her coat melts from the hook and the door clicks closed.

She is on the beach. I am on the beach too. She imagined she would walk right in. She’s a strong swimmer, but it’s cold. Her coat and shoes are heavy. The sea is a tarry black, untouched by the sodium lights of the prom. It’s four in the morning on a Tuesday. Even the drunks are asleep. No-one will see the blob in the water that daylight would know for a head. No-one will call for help, even as it swims away from the coast, grows smaller, sinks.

But the head is still here, on the shoulders, on the shore. The town’s clocks toll six. Dawn unbruises the sea’s Eastern edge. She thought those lines my clue to an easier death but waves beat this word upon the shore: Life, Life. She is mesmerised into awareness. For here is the sea on demonstration mode. In and out, ebb and flow. The little waves, the larger waves. Rough or smooth. High or low. The currents and the undertows. The sea breathes relentlessly: the comfort of good company. Eternal, though the eons dissolve rocks to pebbles, pebbles to sand. 

She sits, and understands. Everything’s creation. The creation of a being, the creation of its pain. A cell, a mole, a growth, a tumour, each only a shift in chemistry, a mutation of physical form. She is, I am, only in the flow of the endless changing of everything. The wearing down of a pebble or a cell, then back to dust, and molecules, and then to compression, and something new. But the sea of all things remains.


Image: Arnold Böcklin, 'Die Toteninsel' ('Isle of the Dead')