Sharing with my sister

She rings me more or les every other evening now, from her kitchen on the far side of Canada, where it is early morning. I have actually never seen her kitchen but I imagine it big and airy, but for some reason rather chilly, with chunky, cluttered work-surfaces and one of those giant American fridges stuffed with joints of meat; lots of brother-in-law’s half-finished DIY projects; things dismantled that will never put back together again.

Outside I visualise a neat, large lawn and other houses similar in design to hers, set at different angles, a kind of giant, Canadian-flavoured Lego construction. I imagine squirrels in trees, vague trees, and looping along the fence panels like the ones I saw when I visited her in Ontario that one time, a quarter of a century ago. Now she is in Alberta, where it is colder. Still kind of Canada but more so. In spring I imagine her garden as a fenced square, kind of big and kind of sterile and kind of green. I imagine a large shed, because I happen to know there is one. I can’t imagine flowers.

Does she think of it as a Yard, I wonder, or is she still English enough for it to be a Garden? I imagine an identical fenced square covered in thick snow in Winter, with the driveway laboriously dug out and snow blown off the road and into the gardens by the snow-blowers. We do not have snow-blowers over here, at least not that I’ve seen. What we have is blocked roads, until the ice chooses to melt of its own accord.

I cannot imagine her state, or her city. Sometimes I type the name of the city into the internet and hit ‘images’ but the images are not enough to reconstruct a city, with that unique, intangible atmosphere each city has; its back-alleys, its park benches, its ponds and trees and shops, its traffic intersections, its threatening corners. I cannot imagine it after dark; I cannot see the inhabitants scurrying along the sidewalks to work in the morning; I cannot hear the noise of its traffic or breathe the air. Photographs are just looking through somebody else’s eyes.

I cannot visualise my sister, most of the time. I haven’t seen her for so long. I look at my face in the mirror and see what has happened to it over the last three years. I try to imagine what will have happened to hers. Has she put on weight, or lost it? Is her hair still tied back, or has she cut it? All I can see is her face when she was four years old and I was seven, when we were having that photograph taken, uncomfortably perched on the back of Mum and Dad’s settee. A round, innocent face.  A big smile whereas I’m looking anxious. She still had her baby teeth; my front teeth were missing altogether. Eyes lighter than mine. Ridiculous ribbon bow on top, same as me. Those ribbons were a kind of dusky pink and cream, with a knurled pattern down the edge.

And now I hear her weeping in this distant kitchen I can’t properly imagine, morning after morning, evening after evening, and try to think of something helpful to say about being confined in a house with a furious, imminently dying husband, who refuses all assistance. She is appealing to me because I am her older sister and she has no one else, but really, if there was anyone else…

I have not experienced this myself. I find it difficult to visualise what she is seeing when she looks at him, though she tries to describe it to me. I cannot visualise worse than the way he looked before, but I can hear the shock and revulsion in her voice. She says it is like being trapped in a horror movie, all day and all night. I think of times I have lost sick or elderly cats, and had no choice but to be with them as they died. I find even this little collection of indelible images difficult to bear, and time makes them no easier. How is she going to cope with remembering this?

I cannot get over there, and apparently no one else can either. One of her neighbours has arranged for a boy to come in mow the lawns and sort out all the overgrown stuff. I picture him quietly working day after day, restoring some order, at least to the Outside. The sight of him seems to calm her too, and the brief expeditions to the bank to get money to pay him. Normal life is still happening, at least Outside.

This bit I can I understand. I remember after a very, very bad time in my life, which also felt like living in a nightmare, making an appointment and going to the hairdresser. I remember looking at my face in the mirror and seeing only some nightmare creature, but the hairdresser was a young girl and she chattered away, seeming to see nothing at all odd in the mirror. She was actually talking to me as if I was a normal person. It was like I really existed, after all. That sunny afternoon, the face in the mirror, the face behind, the quiet snip, snip of the scissors, little wedges of damp, snipped hair falling into my lap, somehow made all the difference.

And so I listen, and I say the same things I said the day before last, and two days before that, and two days before that. I say them over and over. I try to persuade her to get help, ask for carers to come in, doctors, nurses, anyone but she needs his permission. I tell her she needs to take over now, now has become the time. Eventually she is going to have to start thinking things out for herself and acting without permission. But they only had one model for being married, and now it isn’t working. And anyway what do I know about anything? Empty words, no substance behind them.

And then I remember that Ex has a gentle side as well as the more evident bombastic, endlessly-opinionated side. I remember he possessed a miraculous knack for reassurance, a matter-of-fact, earthy acceptance of How Things Are. And so I email him and ask if he will do me a favour, and eventually he does phone her, and it seems to have helped, at least a little. Now she has two people she can talk to, albeit miles apart from one another and thousands of miles across the sea. Now she has two listeners, and two voices on the end of the phone, one male and one female, and it looks as if she has asked for help, though it hasn’t yet arrived.

I hope that this will be over soon, and the sun will be permitted to shine in that unimaginable Canadian garden, and the squirrels can resume their dancing, and the birds can start their singing.

Below and above: Mary and Martha, sister cats.

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Golden Emperor

Golden Emperor has declared that twenty citizens shall be sacrificed on the 20th day of each and every month, to mark the day of his Accession. By chance, Golden Emperor dies on the day and at the very hour of sacrifice.

It is the turn of Second Deputy Executioner to wield the blade this day. He is concealed behind a screen, already attired in the embroidered purple robe and the mask of ebony. With a soft cloth, he is polishing the implement of his trade. Second Deputy Executioner is sick to death of killing, and yet he will kill and kill. He has a wife and five young children to protect. They do not know his real job. He has told them he is an Assistant Armourer – a lowly functionary, but inconspicuous.  Inconspicuous is the safest thing to be: this they all know.

The citizen sacrifice begins the moment the sun’s turning shadow touches the golden sun engraved on the sundial plate.  Second Deputy Executioner puts down his polishing cloth and rises from his chair with a heavy heart. The twenty ragged men and women lined up in the market square catch the glint of the blade and attempt, in various ways, to prepare themselves for the unimaginable, the swift downward slash of the blade. A woman reaches bound hands behind her back for those of her teenage daughter, standing next to her in the line.

“Close your eyes,” she whispers. “Think of clouds in a stormy sky, or of rain drumming on paper walls. Think of cherry blossom. Make a strong, strong picture in your mind.”

And then the sound of horses hooves, a boy from the stable yard on a stolen horse. He stand up in the stirrups and yells:

“Golden Emperor is dead! Long May He Reign In Paradise.”

“Long May He Reign,” echoes Second Deputy Executioner, out of habit, dropping his sword onto the cobbles with a clatter. He falls to his knees, suddenly unable to remain standing, and behind the mask he weeps.

“Golden Emperor is dead!” cries the boy on the stolen horse, struggling to remain in control of it. “He is finally, finally dead!”

“Long May He Reign,” echoes the ragged crowd as it surges into the Square from all sides, laughing and crying, to free the sacrifices.

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Kenshi sleeps well that night, behind closed screens, on the floor of his Grandmother’s house. He dreams of cherry blossom, slowly falling onto deep, green, silent ponds. He dreams of spring, and of the warm breeze that will soon begin to melt the snow on the mountaintop and in the lanes. When it is dawn he slips on his robe and goes out, meaning to walk just as far as the bridge over the stream, and bid good-day to a new world.

On the road, he passes a priest in a black robe and tall wooden pattens.

“Golden Emperor is dead,” he murmurs.

“Long May He Reign,” replies the priest, keeping his head down, taking care not to trip on the cobbles with their covering of snow.

Golden Emperor dislikes the idea of snow. He has therefore declared that snow does not exist. While he lives, he explains – and who knows, may even believe – the land cannot but be bathed in perpetual summer.

Golden Emperor is not very tall. He has therefore declared that no one shall be taller than he, and he has cut off the heads of all who have the temerity to grow taller, or who elevate themselves in any way as he passes in procession. Kenshi climbs a tree. He gazes up into the mountains and down into the valleys. He gazes all around, feasting his eyes on the view.

Golden Emperor has no liking for music, or indeed anything that might conceivably be more beautiful or interesting than he. He has therefore declared that he and he alone is the source of all music. Kenshi pauses by the stream and appreciates anew the song of a blackbird.

At the bridge, he meets an old man leading a donkey heavily laden with firewood.

“Golden Emperor is dead,” he says, by way of greeting, and in just case the old man has missed the news.

The old man smiles at Kenshi and continues on his way. His parting words trail backwards, almost buried in the noise of the birds and the babbling of the stream:

“And Long May He Remain So!”