A voice in my head keeps saying… What is it like to die? Is it like Emily Dickinson wrote… ‘And then the windows failed, and then I could not see to see.’ This verse from her poem, “I heard a fly buzz when I died”*, has haunted me for the past year. I wonder what voice welled up from her subconscious to give breath to such words. When I think of summer now, I think of a July moon marching off from dusty stars and of my sister still living in her garden cottage. Hers was not some lonely house on a wandering road. Neighbors on both sides within shouting distance created a cozy patch to the street. The windows hung low to the ground, and a remarkable slant of light poured into the rooms. My sister sat inside this light for hours as it wandered from chair to chair and dappled each wall. I can still see us, snuggled in her sunroom, lace on the French doors surrounding us, feet up on stools, cups of licorice tea, and her smile light-flooded. We talked for hours — literally nonstop — discussing everything from the madness of money, men, and Mondays to the divinity of whipped butter smeared on fresh bread.
What memorial blooms she grew in front and back yards: sassy tiger lilies and sweet peas of overflowing colors in a conclave of trees. Antique statuary stood at every turn. A Bird Girl made of cast iron and weathered bronze, her small palms holding bowls of birdseed, fed flocks of white-throated sparrows. Dressed in a peasant dress, an explicit tenderness on her face, the Bird Girl became my sister’s signature at every house she owned from Atlanta to St. Augustine to Connecticut. We loved our little girl in the garden.
My sister kept a rather disorderly kitchen (one must judge tenderly of sisters) — her sink never empty of dishes and crusty pans — but she baked the juiciest English trifle, raspberries and silky cream, that made everyone swoon, especially me. Champagne bottles filled the dining room rack. She celebrated everything: a new Woody Allen film, National Pickle Day, a nearly winning lotto ticket.
Her dark mesmeric eyes held delicious secrets but often snapped with warrior enthusiasm. “Damn those nasty raccoons in the trash again. If only I had a shotgun!” I wanted to run there and load the gun for her. Well, what would life be without a little rage now and again? Her three husbands melted under such furies. Her friends turned to crumbs. Even our mother would take a step back from her fire. Not me. Was it ravishing? Yes. Exhausting? For sure. Unforgivable? Never even once.
“My checkbook’s overdrawn. Mortgage is due, car payment overdue. What a mess I’m in.” Her crushing financial crises brought tears and sleepless nights for me too. But like the Bird Girl, my sister’s core iron strength prevailed, and I remained steadfast with her through every turn.
The last night she lived, her body was peaceful as an empty cathedral. Her hospice bed became the alabaster chamber. Her laughter hushed. Her beauty covered with sleep. As she lay in this silhouette, I noticed the smallest thing: a mole on her cheek. I didn’t remember that ‘beauty mark’, as they’re called. But there it was like a lone violet in the sand. I put my hand to my face, feeling my own beauty mark. My sister’s voice rose in my mind from when I was eight, she fifteen. “That’s where God kissed you.”
Her breaths grew hollow as night deepened; I held her hand fast in mine. A twinge of envy salted my mouth. She was going to find out the great secret. She’ll know what’s on the other side. What will she hear? What will she see? Where exactly is she going? Will she remember me when she gets there? Will she meet blinding depths of silver-winged angels in resplendent emerald glades as she enters the gates? My imagination ran off to glittering abodes of heaven that my sister would be granted. The high religious dramas I grew up on did not fail me now.
The hours lagged. At the window, thin clouds with ragged tips swept across the moonlight like homeward avian friends. I may have slept, rested my eyes, opened my eyes, heard voices singing Ave Maria. I woke in a deep stillness.
On the flying heels of the dark, my sister went forth with the dawn.
The gray of winter has settled in now. And that slant of light still haunts her vacant cottage. I go there, watch, wait, pretend to see her living among the gently shifting patterns. I see the light waiting on the trees, luminous, but cold and damp on my face. My thoughts wander and I want to say… ‘I could not die with you.’ Emily Dickinson, she wrote that too.**
Paula Cappa has had 3 short stories published: “Sip of the Moon” in Human Writes Literary Journal, Society Hill, South Carolina; “Christmas Day with the Jays, 1815” in Record Review, Bedford, New York (historical fiction of First Chief Justice, John Jay and family); and “Street Crimes” in Mystery Time Anthology, Hayden, Idaho.