IT’S ALWAYS about the ones who disappear.
I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.
This is my sheet ripe with me, this is my mirror, this is my reflection.
I close my sister’s room. I don’t know what she was thinking when she left.
I can pretend, for a while, that I felt her fear of life, her hurt. She said, always, it will be better under water. She would stay in the shower, drain the cylinder cold.
She took my mum’s car when she left, though I suppose she gave it back. The police found it parked under a flyover near the airport, like she’d driven up onto the verge and got out and walked on bleeding feet over broken glass to a pair of wings, to freedom. Other people in my town whispered that of course we’d love to think she got on a plane. There’s no record of her from there. She took her passport, but didn’t buy a ticket.
I married three years after Claire disappeared. And here’s the thing. I have these pictures I hate to look at because no matter how much I smile in them, or how much money Mum and Dad pulled together to help me have the best wedding—the best wedding for their only daughter, their only child—no one can ignore that the photos are ruined. There are empty spaces where my sister should be, strange gaps where elbows don’t meet, where heads cant, where shadows fall in the wrong direction. There are water stains that bubble like a strange mold between the layers of film.
He was a terrible photographer, our Uncle Jay. He’s dead now, but he’s still real. He has a plot, and a nice headstone. Mum goes to visit him now and again.
Cancer is a fucking destroyer, it took my mum’s baby brother away from her, like a slice of her soul was excised.
I know how she feels about that. There are still photos of my sister in my mum’s lounge. I’m here to help her clean. She’s getting on in years, her and dad, but they won’t hire a char, not even to come in one day a week to help. Mum says she’s never needed to hire anyone to do her cleaning for her and it won’t start now.
So I come in, and do it for free while my daughter’s in school.
My face twists. Mum is sleeping, lulled into childlike nap-time by the whine of the vacuum. I’ve stashed it away, and now I’m just faffing really, dusting knickknacks and photos that don’t need dusting. I look at the ostrich feather duster held out like a wand, and wonder if I could summon my sister back. She’s not dead. There’s no proof of that.
The water in the vase of flowers sitting on the mantelpiece is rank, eddies stirring the greening muck, the flower heads sagging, spilling petals. Next to the curling pale fingers of a dead iris, my sister smiles uncertainly from a school portrait. She was wearing glasses, before she got her contact lenses and re-invented herself.
She would have hated this picture, hated knowing our mum kept it, right where visitors could have seen it, and gone, “Is that your Claire, I never, she looks so different now!” which of course no one ever says because visitors never Talk About Claire. They talk about the rain, or who’s doing what with whom. Claire’s name has gone missing from people’s minds.
I only remember it because every night before bed and after I’ve brushed my teeth, I lean in close to the bathroom mirror, until my breath fogs the silver, and write her name with my fingernail. Little scratches through water.
She drowned, people said after.
Where they think she managed that, I’d love to know. Did she walk barefoot (her shoes were left in the car, along with all her luggage—she certainly looked as if she’d packed to travel) for miles along the gray heels of the road, staggering through dusk and dawn, past the city houses, until she found a river wide enough to take her soul.
Fuck you, Claire.
It’s not hard to leave.
It’s hard to stay.
I spit on her photo, and the bubble of saliva slides tragically down her face. Not like a delicate tear, but an unwiped sneeze.
You have made me hate you.
No, no, not hate. I love, I always love, come back, Claire. I didn’t mean it, we won’t be angry, come back. Come back before Mum and Dad join Uncle Jay in the quiet plot, before I am too old to remember your name and write it in water.
When my sister Alison leaves, she closes the door on our mother, asleep, spittle hanging from her half-open mouth. She snores softly, sweetly as a baby. I saw Alison’s baby born. Was there, drifting from water droplet to water droplet, I folded around her when she was still forming bridges between nerve and muscle, growing a liver, learning a heart. I was the sweat on my sister’s forehead, I slid down her back, I pooled in her eyes. I know my sister more intimately than she knows herself.
This is not fear, or cowardice.
This is how to drown.
Take one brain bowed under the weight of its own unstoppable thoughts.
Take lungs that cannot stretch wide enough to fill with air. Because water is hard to come back from, because air is difficult, breathe smoke instead. It will give you wrinkles but make you beautiful. You will be a siren in a black-and-white film, your eyes filled with sex and knowledge.
This is power.
You will pack your bags with the things you cannot leave behind.
You will leave them behind at the end anyway, it doesn’t matter.
You will drive in your mother’s car; a fusty dry womb that smells of air-freshener and, faintly, of vomit. It is familiar. You will stick to the seats and roll the window down so you can smoke faster. You will play the same song on repeat and wish you were a child again.
Claire was always disappearing. Mum would give us some instruction on chores and as soon as her back was turned I’d be alone, having to clean our shared room all by myself. I’ll give her this much, at least, she didn’t make much mess if you ignored the bed-wetting.
She liked to be clean, Claire. Not just the endless showers, but she liked to have her world ordered. Her bed straight, her records alphabetized. Her books were packed as neatly as she could get them. She wasn’t all about obsessively vacuuming or folding clothes, though, she could be filthy about some things, our Claire. I think she wanted the world to have a semblance of control, because she knew it was actually chaos.
It still annoyed me; the disappearing. When we were kids, she threw the biggest tantrum ever when Mum paid for us to have lessons at the local pool, so we wouldn’t drown (in the middle of the city, far from water.)
Claire wet her bed, and the room smelled of urine, hot and sweet, even after Mum washed all the bedding; the rumbleslush of the machine, the spurt of soap water spiraling down midnight drains.
In the end Dad made her go to swim lessons. When we went to the pool, she did this trick the moment I blinked. She’d slide under the water and I’d lose her between the wobbly white legs and the rubber heads and the alien goggles.
Later, she would pop up at the far end of the pool like a fat mermaid, and scowl.
Funny joke, right. After all that, she could swim better than any of us. A Natural.
When I was ten I told my mother I would no longer take baths. It was dirty, I told her. I had to shower. She thought I was being a brat again, and I had to throw one of my epic screaming fits, piss myself so that I knew I had control, until Dad told her that letting me shower was better than letting me scream.
It wasn’t that I hated bathing because of the filth, though that was part of it. Lying in warm water filled with flakes of skin and dirt and tiny fallen hairs and all the microscopic misery that attaches itself to human beings.
It was being lost in there, alone, disintegrating with my own debris. I was scared that one day I’d forget how to pull all my million selves back into one me, solid and real. It was better to lose myself in invisible pieces, sluiced away down the shower drain. I could hold my shape there, and just let the water wash out the parts of me I hated.
This is how to become water.
Take one sack of flesh bowed under the weight of its own unstoppable decay.
I learned how to become water before I was born. In Amnio. In water we are made, in water we will trust. I could dissolve and reform my bones, pull them together like sharpening splinters, stitch my molecules together and unpick them. I drifted between shapes. Growing.
When my mother’s water broke, I had to claim my own space before there was nothing left of me.
I spent months curled into my new form, learning solidity. Vernix oiled away, sponged clean, skin revealed, hair black and flat, eyes puffed and swollen. I’d had a fight with the birth canal, that channel shaping my malleable flesh into form, squeezing my head firm, pounding out the air and the water, like a potter molding clay. I only learned to become water again when my mother stopped sitting on the edge of the bath, watching me to make sure I wouldn’t drown. I could lie under the warmth, listening to the boom and rattle of the pipes, the slow drip from the faulty tap and I could remember how to breathe water instead of air, and fill my lungs with a familiar warm salt. I could let go my bladder, and float in that familiar world of Amnio. It wasn’t running away. It was running back.
Day by day I learned to dissolve.
Once, I walked into the bathroom while Claire was supposed to be having a bath. She was ten, I think, and I was sixteen and meant to be going out, tired of waiting and knocking and getting no response. She was a brat, a wild haired, sullen-eyed, bed-wetting, disappearing brat. And I was angry all over again with everything she was. So I shoved the door open, expecting to find Claire lolling in cooling water, her expression mulish.
There was no Claire.
There was only water, dark and strange and smoky with blood and hair.
I grew myself back after that, as quickly as I could I knitted myself together.
It had to stop.
Each slip was harder to come back from. My skin itched to disappear, to fly away spark by spark to join the clouds and rivers, the sea and sweat and tears.
I know where my sister has gone. I can’t say it, but I know it and it is why. Why I write her name in breathmist, and open my mouth to swallow the rain. Why I take long baths until the water around me is icy and my fingers and toes have shriveled and pruned themselves numb. Why I don’t change the stagnant water in my mother’s flowers.
It’s all right, Claire. We love you. Come back.
I fold my soul around Alison’s daughter as she jumps in mud puddles under a sky dry from weeping. I settle in my mother’s weakening bladder, run down her legs, I rinse the sadness from my sister’s skin. From a cloudless sky I pull my molecules from mist so fine no man could see them.
I fall with the dusk on the waiting graves, and try to remember how to put myself together.
Cat Hellisen is a South African-born writer of fantasy for adults and children. Her work includes the novel When the Sea is Rising Red and short stories in Apex, F & SF, Something Wicked, and Tor.com. Her latest novel is a fairy tale for the loveless, Beastkeeper.
4 thoughts on “Serein, by Cat Hellisen”
Whew . . . brilliant.
‘In water we are made; in water we will trust.”
Both breathtaking and heartbreaking.
So authentic and present it makes my eyes sparkle, my memories boil up, all my senses at the starting line. And bold.
Wow! How I’ve drowned in this. Life!