by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Sister’s got mono. She’s real sick. She’s five and I’m seven. And Aunt Nell’s taken her down to her house to stay. She says she’s on “quor-an-teen.”
So Sister’s down there staying in that bedroom our great-grandmama died in. She died before we were born but she was really sick too, she had sores all over her body and they oozed with blood and green puss. That’s what Aunt Nell told me.
I ain’t been in that bedroom much but I think great-grandmama’s ghost is down there because it seems to me that’s where a ghost like her would want to live. And now that’s where Sister is, sleeping in her bed. But Aunt Nell says there’s no such thing as ghosts, only angels.
When we go in to see Sister in that bedroom we have to be real quiet and everything is dark. Aunt Nell’s covered the windows with paper and tape and blinds and curtains because Sister cries when the light comes in. We whisper in there one at a time and the fan moves like it’s hardly working. Sister looks like a baby swallowed in pillows. And the ends of the old bed posts look like pineapples. And I’m sitting in Mama’s lap and she points at the fireplace and tells me when she was little she saw Aunt Nell beat bats out of it with a broom. There’s an old painting on the wall of a castle by the sea. The waves are high and there aren’t any trees or birds singing. It’s chipping in the corner.
If I get too close to Sister I might get mono too. But I lean up on the bed and ask her if she’s afraid in here and she says no. I ask her if she’s seen an old lady ghost and she says no. I ask her if she likes the castle painting by her bed and she says no. She says her head hurts. Aunt Nell says it’s a “my-grain.”
I was still a baby when Sister was born so I don’t remember it. Her birthday is May thirteenth. I miss her kicking me in the bed at night.
I don’t like leaving Sister in that room. I bring her in June bug shells. She won’t hold them because she’s a little scared but she tells me to hang them on the lamp in the corner. It’s the only light she likes to have on in the room. I take my time and hang them all real careful in a neat row. And Sister squints and sees them. She says they’re her jewels. And it is so pretty and I want to fill the lampshade full of June bugs for Sister. Her birthstone is an emerald. Mine is peridot.
I dream that great-grandmama sits on the end of Sister’s bed when she’s sleeping. And in my dream great-grandmama’s skin is clear with no sores or blood or puss. It glows like a nightlight.
Mama sleeps with me at night because I’m too afraid to sleep by myself. I don’t want to wake up with someone sitting on the end of my bed. Mama says Sister will get better soon and come home but she can’t tell me when.
Aunt Nell tells me not to bring Sister any more June bugs. I tell Aunt Nell to leave me alone she’s my Sister and I want to see her by myself. I have to get up on my tiptoes but I have good balance and I get the castle off the wall real easy. I put it in Sister’s lap and crawl up in bed with her and we pick at the painting. We start at the ocean and then the cliff and when we get to the castle Sister falls asleep. I get out of bed and it’s a big mess. Dark flecks are all over Sister and the sheets.
Then I go to the end of the bed and ask Jesus to let Sister come home. When I open my eyes and look up I see that the ends of the bedposts ain’t pineapples, they’re really just magnolia blossoms before they bloom.
I ask Aunt Nell where I was when Sister was born and she says I was there, but that I was too little when it happened for me to remember.
Aunt Nell says Sister’s gonna grow up and have her own babies and have a good life. And I want to know how she knows.
And that’s when Aunt Nell tells me about the night we buried Sister’s afterbirth. The afterbirth is the last part of us that comes out of our mamas. And we have to bury ours out by the swamp field. Aunt Nell said we buried hers right next to mine right out back of her house.
I leave then, run out the back door and try to remember. I run to the swamp path, the birds fly up around me. I stop to catch my breath. I close my eyes and hear the summertime bugs in the grasses. I think real hard back to when I was a baby, so hard I start to feel how the rocks turned warm in my hands that night. The dirt smelled wet and I could see the moon in the bottom of that hole, shining on that afterbirth of Sister. I wanted to help, I put the rocks down in the hole easy. I didn’t want to break that moon.
Before I go to bed I look and I still got some of that dark ocean underneath my fingernails. I bet Sister still does too.
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips grew up on her family's farm in Woodland, North Carolina — she still lives there. Her short stories, essays, and poems have been published in Hobart, The Nervous Breakdown, Scalawag, Talking Book, drDOCTOR, Show Your Skin, and others. She's been nominated for Best of the Net and she's included in Best Small Fictions 2019. Follow her on twitter/instagram: @woodlandraised.