My sister, la fantasma
My sister, la fantasma, blows in and out of my life. I can smell her on the wind before she comes to visit. Her bracelets rattle like old bones, her dark skin is ashy, and her eyes hollow. She grins at me with all her teeth. I can see her hunger in the gesture. I take her into a strong hug anyway.
My mother mourns my sister. She won’t see her. She won’t feed her, which is worse. My mother smells famine and drought on the air and wafts the smoke from burning sage over the doorways and windows. When I visit she passes an egg over my body. I don’t tell my sister, but I don’t ask my mother to stop. It helps. I regain color and weight and stop feeling so desperately thirsty all the time. She sends me home with sopa de malanga, lavender lotion, and bundles of dried sweet sage she hopes I’ll use.
“I cannot lose another daughter.”
She never calls my sister by name.
I go almost a year without seeing her. She doesn’t call, doesn’t write. I don’t smell dust on the wind. I listen for the rattling of bones but the night is full of regular noises: dogs barking, traffic, the hum of a street light. Until one day I stop in front of my door and hear a laugh like a death rattle. I can see the back of her head, long black hair falling down the back of the couch. My roommate is getting her a glass of water. Makes sense, she can’t enter the kitchen herself, has probably been lingering on the edges of it until he saw her. It’s a place of creation, my territory, and la fantasma can’t cross the threshold. He sets it down on the table and greets me before he has to leave for the night shift at the hospital.
While his back is turned she drains the glass in one smooth movement. I sit on the chair opposite her and stare. I can’t help it. She’s pregnant. I can see the life glowing through her ashy skin. She’s always been translucent around the edges, fading in and out, but around her belly she’s solid. She grins at me with too sharp teeth. If I entertained the thought for even second that she’d begun to dig herself out of the pit for her baby, it’s gone. She’s still hungry, hungrier than ever. I can feel myself drying out, weakening from here, and I haven’t even touched her.
“I can’t keep it. I won’t change so I can’t keep it. Do you want it?”
She’s so blunt about it. This is a version of my sister pared down to bone and I’m never going to get used to what that means.
The birth is a difficult one. We gather around the bathtub in my mother’s house, cousins, my mother, and I. Sweet sage is set aside for now. Hours of pushing, bloody water, and the inhuman screeching of my sharp sister, her long black hair plastered to her face where it has escaped from its tie.
Finally, the baby is born. A wrinkly red bundle that begins screaming as soon as her mother reaches for her. My sister pulls her hands back slowly, then leans back in the tub, exhausted.
She stares at her baby, pupils blown so wide the darkness swallows her eyes, unblinking black holes, for the entire time it takes to cut the umbilical, to clean her and wrap her in soft cloth. She tracks the movement of tiny fists waving through the air, the small body beginning to still while a breastfeeding cousin feeds her. She burns with want so badly that the bath water begins to evaporate around her before she visibly calms herself.
When I look away from the baby my sister is gone. A trail of dripping footprints in soiled water leading to the wall and stopping.
My mother burns sage, cleans the entire house top to bottom, and burns sage again. She insists I’ll need the help being a first time mom for my niece and practically forces us to move in. I had to move out of the shared apartment anyway. She’s right about needing help, but I notice all the other things she does too. She hangs blue glass eyes in the kitchen windows and the nursery. She keeps statues of saints in corners, embroiders symbols into the baby blankets, puts herbs in my bathwater.
That doesn’t stop me from waking up in the rocking chair one night, baby in a chest sling, to see the hungry void eyes of my sister taking in the sight of her sleeping child.
She looks at me, and then la fantasma turns away.
My sister, la fantasma