Mom wants me to take care of my dead sister. She can’t stand the burden of her anymore, she wants to be free and start over. I didn’t even know my sister when she was alive. I’ve met only the dead version of her, but that’s irrelevant, says mom. She raised me alone, all this time carrying my old sister along. Dad left when I was born. He didn’t want another kid. I think he feared that I’d be sick too. But I’m still here, alive and well, which may be hard on mom. Perhaps she’d want me dead too.
That’s why I had two of you, she tells me. So that you take care of each other. She thinks I’m old enough now. Old enough to understand loss. She’s tired of loss and grieving. Now is my turn. I tell her I can’t mourn someone I never knew, but I admit I will be sad if she’s gone. Same thing, mom says, looking at a vague point on the ceiling, like all grief is right there and grief will fall down on me, the moment mom walks out.
*Mom’s busy with the dishes and I should help out, but I stand by her, staring at her hands instead. She asks what is my problem and I shake my head, like nothing’s wrong, while thinking what it’ll be like, sharing the house with my dead sister alone. I’ll go to work, then come back, I’ll be doing all the chores, since sister won’t help, dead people don’t do the dishes, don’t clean, they only haunt houses, thoughts, hearts, they make a mess, a mess that’s impossible to clean out sometimes.
What is your problem? Mom asks again. Nothing, I say, without lifting my eyes from her hands that rub and rub a wooden, worn-out dish, that remains stained, the dirt won’t go away. I think we should throw it away, get a new one, but I don’t tell mom, she never throws away things, or pain, or grief, she rubs and rubs, then polishes things, and she thinks they’re like brand new, only they aren’t, but mom holds on to them. I shake my head and stay silent. I prefer that to saying the wrong thing, making her angry or disappointed. I’ve tried to be the perfect daughter, to compensate for her loss, but my sister wins all the time, she keeps mom busy, I’ve accommodated myself to fit mom’s needs, but I’ve had enough of that, of mom stretching me, compressing me to fit her expectations. I mute myself, I stay calm, composed, but there’s a voice in me, a voice I can’t mute, a silent scream, overwhelming my mind.
Mom, I can’t do this without you, I tell her. It is your duty, she insists but I don’t want to, I hate my sister, I hate the space she occupies in mom’s head, and I cry and yell and mom says that’s a good start. That’s the duty of a good daughter, she claims. She made me to help her, she says. Kind of like an investment? I ask. She nods, like I found the perfect word. I nod too, like I understand, although I think she should have invested in stocks, like normal people.
She’s crying too and now she plays her last card, acting as if she’s burdened me too much. Like she doesn’t need me, like I’m a failure and she will have to carry the burden herself. Which is only natural, because duty can end up a burden, duty is the word I hate the most, a word invented for things we don’t want to do, but somehow we must. Mom was never a duty, until now. I’ve tried my best to help, because I love her, and love can’t be considered a duty, but if mom thinks it is, then love vanishes, love becomes a tiny, unimportant detail, that doesn’t count much.
*I don’t even see her, I tell mom, and mom thinks I’m heartless, that I don’t care, that I have forgotten the dead sister she wants me to take care of. And I internalize her pain, I cry and cry and cry until I see her and when my dead sister appears out of the blue, I cry harder, because I see her. She feeds on our tears, on our grief, she walks past me, falls on mother’s lap, mom hurts, her bones ache, sister’s too heavy for her, ghosts can be heavy too, their weight measures in memories and love and sorrow, but I hug mom and she smiles, and mom’s smile makes sister lighter and lighter, light as a feather, gravity disappears, she grows wings and flies, out of the window, into the backyard, while I stare at her, all traces of envy vanish, and I sink, gravity pulls me down, for I’m not a ghost, unlike my sister, my ethereal sister, she’d be Clair de Lune if she were a musical piece, she’d be the sound of moonlight. I stare at her eyes, while she floats away, she looks happy, as a kid should be, but also sad, like dead people, a melancholic gaze behind that sparkling joy, like she also envies me for still being here. She’s up there, I’m down here, both of us trapped in a game in which love is mistaken for duty and duty is confused with love, a game of pain, pain, pain and wounds that won’t heal.
We both failed, I tell my dead sister. We were not born to grow, blossom and love, we were born haunted, by a duty, the duty to make mom happy and we failed, we failed miserably; she’s dead and I’m alive.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, from Athens, Greece. A Pushcart, Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions nominated writer, her work can be found in many journals, such as Litro, Jellyfish Review, Flash Flood, Moon Park Review, Okay Donkey, Maudlin House, Open Pen and others.