Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

 

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Walking My Sister Home

Holly Zwalf

(A response to Margo Lanagan’s award-winning short story "Singing My Sister Down")

August 2008

We all went back there after dark.  The moon had stolen the shadows as it died, making it hard to pick our way.  We couldn’t risk using the lamps.  I was angry that the ground showed no respect; sticks cracked underfoot loud enough to wake the deepest sleep.  We moved slowly as if we were in a nightmare; as if we were trying to run away.  No one made it a rule but I could tell that we were all holding our breaths, til we made it past the big tree that stood at the end of the village.  Then there was a deep, collective sigh.  If they found us, we knew where we’d all soon be—warming our feet, eating crab and sinking with the sun.  Our tools were wrapped in old clothes so they wouldn’t clang, and Mumma was like a strange santa claus with the wood over her shoulder in a hessian sack.  It was later than I’d ever stayed awake but my eyes were wide and sharp.  Yawning would have seemed wrong at such an important moment.  We were bringing my sister home.

The tar pit was calm, no ripples to hint at what it hid.  We knew the spot, though.  We’d marked it with flowers, because flowers do not sink.  They were an oasis in a dark desert, faces soft from waiting all day in the sun.  Underneath the surface we knew her body hung, encased like an insect in amber.  With tools and heat we worked, opening the tar up like an open wound, like a mother giving birth.  Fires burned in a circle, and slowly my sister emerged.  We knew her by her head—a black sticky coconut in the mess of melting tar.  We shared sandwiches on the bank as we waited for the edges to cool.

Working again, and slowly, her body was worked free, like a splinter from the soft arch of a foot.  But my sister and the tar were still inseparable.  A black cocoon covered her completely, like thick burnt-toffee apples from the markets.  The scent of it made me think of long road trips, family holidays in better times.  Three on each side, we carried her on shoulders back to the hut.  It didn’t strike me till later that it was a kind of funeral in reverse, and when I thought about it, the idea made me uncomfortable.  In the night air her coffin cooled.  The surface was hard and smooth, other than where an air bubble had escaped, down near where her buttocks should have been.  We lay her out the front of our hut, lengthways, and coated her with tree-resin to disguise the shape, and hold the tar firm.  By the time we went to sleep it looked as though she’d always been there, somehow. 

As time went by it became a favoured place to sit.  Elders perched on her and gossiped, children clambered across her curves, young boys leant against her in the afternoon sun, chewing grass.  When asked, we said she was a palm-log, felled near the pit and covered in tar as a memorial.  The people saw that her death had balanced her crime, and so accepted this as fair.  I wasn’t so sure myself.  Some nights I saw her, feet firmly rooted in the ground like a shrieking tree, or worse, almost fully submerged, nothing but nostrils, a turtle surfacing for breath.  Sometimes it was me who drowned, chest crushed in the slow warmth, surrendering, like to sleep.  I didn’t play my flute for her, even though I’d promised.

Hot days permeated the village, the cannibal heat cooking us all in its soup.  Sweat, mosquitoes, mangrove mud and old meat hung in the air.  As the weather warmed up, so did my sister, fermenting beneath her shield.  I noticed this as I sat, one night, eating a banana from the fire.  With a confusion of curiosity and fear I breathed her body as it rotted in its skin, hard and black on the outside like my banana, but slowly softening within.  One particularly thick day the chief and his family came to visit, bringing pleasantries and betel nut to show their goodwill.  Our family had settled our debt, he said.  It was time to make the peace.  Mumma served kava and smiled, giving the chief and his wife pride of place on my sister’s hips.  They talked for hours about why there were more fish this year but less taro, about how the nights were getting longer again, about how Langasday had brought its usual share of fights.  They never once mentioned her name.  Mumma brought out an ice-basket and some cola that she’d been saving for a special time, and the grapes she’d bought in town.  I could smell my sister more than ever.  The smoke of the fire wasn’t enough to hide it, tonight.  ‘What is that?’  the chief asked at one point.  ‘It’s sweet, but dark, like regret.’  ‘Ah,’ said Mumma, ‘it would be the fish bait and mangoes this one left too long in the sun.  Ruined, every one of them.’  She gave me a poke to emphasis my guilt, and I hung my head, staring at the ground.  Mumma threw lemongrass on the fire, and I sat and watched, fascinated, as the damp spread around the sitting-log.  Over the course of the afternoon my sister began to fairly trickle from the hole, and a small puddle formed, right at the chief’s feet.  I could feel her oozing, spreading her stench through our group, making herself known.  She was everywhere, in the air, in the earth, seething, seeking revenge in our nostrils and lungs, drowning us all.  I wanted to vomit, but the older ones had seemed to stop noticing.  When the moon lifted above the roof, they finally rose to go.  As the chief stood, I saw that the bottom of his soft-spun shoes were soaked in the putrid juice.  I smiled at Mumma, and she gave me a look that for some reason made me feel suddenly grown-up.  The chief didn’t look down as he said his goodbyes, and whistling, he left, swinging his arms, walking my sister home.

Lanagan's short story appears in:

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