Anchorage, Alaska: Prologue
Even though I hadn’t been born yet, I still remember my second-oldest sister’s birth, my mother carrying her home from the hospital wrapped in a blue blanket, because she was only the second and my father still had hopes for a boy. The light in the living room hazy and soft, since it was the beginning of March and twilight only lasted a few moments.
We stood around, my oldest sister and I, we stood at the legs of our father, his pants dark and wrinkled and smelling of tobacco and dust, and we strained our toes, trying to make ourselves taller. My mother leaned down and held Deena in front of us, and she was so small, her face pinched in disapproval, her tiny hands punching. The corner of her mouth turned down slightly so that she looked both young and old, wise and unknowing.
She stunned me, this sister of mine with the wizened face and the angry fists. I wanted to touch her but kept my arms straight at my sides, elbows locked and stubborn. It was as if I knew, even then, that she would balk at receiving affection, that this was the one grace she would never quite master.
Spring in Alaska creeps slowly, birch trees pale and bare and then, without warning, tiny buds sprouting until there is green, such a bright and hopeful green that it almost hurts to witness.
Deena didn’t die in the spring, but I always think of her then because she was so closed, so hidden, she kept to herself, slept all day in a series of shabby apartments, coming out only at night, talking to no one but her dog.
I didn’t know she lived like that, though maybe I did.
Probably I did. What happened next was as much my fault as hers, which simply means that you can be swept away, willingly and with abandon.
This is what happened to Deena, and to me. We fell. Down in the grass, in the green and damp grass.
There can be worse ways to go, Cin, she whispers to me.
That’s a lie. There was no whisper, no voice. I made that up to make myself feel better.
I eat grass. I prefer clover but also like flowers, violets, chamomile buds, and the sharp and bitter tang of dandelion greens.
Sometimes when I’m hiking, I place small stones in my mouth, suck off the dirt, run my tongue over the edges, the indentations, the tiny ridges.
It’s impossible to keep things out of my mouth.
When my son was younger, we used to drive out to Turnagain Arm and wait for the beluga whales, which arrived on the late summer tides to feed on salmon. We stood on rocks above the shore, we stood in rain and sun, waiting for those ghost-white bodies and when we spotted one, our chests fluttered as we watched it lift up out of the water, back gleaming, tail flicking. It was like being inside a movie, surreal and magical. Once, we looked up to find a beluga whale swimming alongside the beach. Up close, it was more of a greyish shade, more ordinary and yet more majestic than when glimpsed from a distance.
Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it, how it adds and subtracts, takes something as simple as watching a whale swim along the shore and mixes it up in your mind so that your sister is there beside you, even though she’s been dead for years. Still, this is what you remember: the wind and the smell of the marsh, the silver-blue tint of an Alaska twilight spreading the water, and beyond it all, the small and simple feel of your dead sister’s hand slipping inside of yours.
What else can you possibly do? You tighten your grip. You hold on.