By Keren Heenan
My sister’s only been back a week. We sit in the kitchen and I listen to her talk about the city; the street, the hospital where she’d worked, now hidden under rubble.
‘There’s an old man,’ she says, ‘his house just a shell now. But he still plays music, I heard him on the day I left. Nothing there but bombed-out windows and shattered walls, a bed covered in debris. I saw him sitting on the bed, listening to an old gramophone, his house just … a mess.’
I put the mug of tea in front of her and pour my own. Blueberry muffins sit warm from the oven, untouched on the plate. The cat leaps onto my lap, all soft warm fur. I rest my hand, feeling her asthmatic purr.
‘Everyone running blindly, sirens, the noise,’ her hands cover her ears. ‘The smell of blood and dust, I don’t know how to lose that.’ She tilts forward, fingers splayed, but she doesn’t cry. I hold onto the warm roundness of the mug of tea and wait. Outside, the children’s voices rise in unison, a celebration of some sort—a goal kicked, or heroically defended. Murmured fragments of their banter drift across the garden.
‘One woman,’ my sister says, ‘she was barefoot, blood from a wound on her head. She wore something yellow, and the blood … it made a pattern … like a river across her chest.’ Her voice cracks. ‘I tried to get to her, over the broken concrete and rubble and I couldn’t … I couldn’t get there.’
We’re holding the mugs, but we’re not drinking the tea. The clock ticks like a metronome, squeezing the rhythm of the day into the gaps between her words. She rocks gently back and forwards on the chair. The old dog shakes her head in the corner, collar slapping.
In the next room the baby stirs. I rest my hand on my sister’s then go and lift him out of his warm nest and bring him back to the table. He’s all sweaty hair and red cheeks from teething. He looks at her and his mouth breaks into a red-gummed grin. The corner of her mouth lifts. The heater flicks off and I place the baby on her lap. ‘Here, I’ll have to go and clean the filter.’
When I get back she’s holding him close to her chest, one hand on his back. ‘The woman,’ she whispers. ‘The woman in yellow, she had a baby strapped to her back,’ and she’s looking across the room to the wall, and beyond. The old dog rises from her bed, stretching. Makes her way across to the table and rests her head on my sister’s knee.
Outside, the sing-song calls of the children rise and fall, and my sister’s hand makes slow circles on the baby’s back.
Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.