‘Is it beautiful?’
I wake from dozing, the swaying grass and humming bumble bees that escorted my dream still clinging to me as the dimly lit sick room reasserts itself. Something inside my chest cracks, I’m certain, as the meadow fades, stealing away the scent of leaves and summer flowers, sweet memories of Connie smiling, Connie happy, Connie struggling through the hip high grass, bedecked with daisy chains.
There is my Connie now. Lying in bed, arms pale as the sheet that covers her. Dark smudges blot the hollows under her eyes, though her cheeks are unnaturally red as if she’s just come from running in the meadow.
I’m unsure if I dreamed her voice, so I wait for her to speak again, or not. I have learned patience over these weeks, if not acceptance.
‘Is it beautiful?’
This time, I am not mistaken. I lean forward, smell the sour scent of her breath, the bitter tang of her body. Though we wash her daily, the smell clings, the grave staking its claim on her.
‘Is what beautiful, dearest?’ I whisper, lips close to her ear.
‘The Isle of the Dead.’ Her voice is so faint, I struggle to catch that last.
Is this some fairy tale that foolish maid has spun? She is full of old wive’s tales, of cures for coughs and broken hearts and ways to find a husband. I know Mama would want me to call the story out for a lie. Say the only way to redemption is through surrender to the Lord. But my sister is so tiny, so frail a thing, so very close to whatever lies next. The thing I wish for most is to smooth the worry lines from her face.
I take up her hand, no bigger than a wren cradled in my own and I begin to speak.
‘Oh, yes, a lovely place, dear one. Running with crystal waterfalls, so sweet on the tongue. And cypress trees taller than St Mary’s steeple. There are rocks to climb, though they will never cut your palms or graze your knees and birds that sing so sweetly, the sound will break your heart …’
I speak till I am hoarse, till the sun is full up and my little wren has flown.