THIS IS THE DAY WE DIE
Depression sounded like a half-witted song, one that couldn’t be sung at home or school or the church. It was something so ephemeral that it seemed to have lost its meaning. It was unlikely that one of the children would somehow become infected with the virus. Life with the Bishop was simple: mornings with prayers and a plate of fried bananas; afternoons with Jesus and rosaries and seashells; evenings with stories and hymns. There was no way a child living with Bishop would end up being contaminated with the virus of depression.
The children had only heard about the word once whilst listening to a discussion they never should have. The Bishop, of course, chastised them by letting them sit in the sun for hours. Afterward, one of the women who wore white and accompanied the Bishop to church on Thursdays came and sat the children on the steps that led to the creek, wanting to explain what the word meant.
She said, “One shouldn’t eavesdrop on adult conversations again. The Lord hates it.”
Two children sat by her side, one on her right and the other on her left. Two others sat on the lower steps, straining their heads backward to catch her words. She was not being loud. It was as though she was talking in low voice for a purpose. They were four children who did not know why they could not dance in the rain or dig holes for dead butterflies. Still, they listened to the woman in white.
“What is depression then?” one of the children asked. She was ten, would be eleven in a week yet she had no name. Bishop did not give his children names. He called them by their ages. In a week, she would be called eleven, replaced by the number she’d come to love and own.
The woman answered, “It is just something that shouldn’t be talked about. It’s a virus, something that contaminates the soul.”
“We don’t have it, do we?” thirteen asked. She still had a couple of months before her name would change but she was not wise. She only knew what she was told.
“No, no,” the woman said.
“How would we know if we have it?” seven asked. “What would papa do if we had it?”
The woman straightened. “Dear, dear, none of you could ever have it, understand? Now forget there ever was a word like that.”
Only one of the children said nothing –a boy with dark hair and golden eyes—scrunching at the sun and the water, imagining there was a life afterward; something that was accurate and real and not halved by nothingness. He was the older child, fifteen, calm, quiet, solid and he knew nothing. He sat on the steps for hours until his name became an anthem. They were calling out to him for dinner and stories.
When he climbed back to the house, Bishop asked him to wash his hands twice and recite the Lord’s Prayer. The boy missed three lines because, as he would later say, he was nervous. He did not eat dinner that night nor breakfast the next morning. It was to be his punishment. Ten stole flatbread and beans and met him by the creek. She told him to eat it quickly lest the Bishop caught her. They sometimes forgot he was their father.
Fifteen ate the food and gave her a small hug. “Thank you,” he told her. She smiled quickly and ran back to the house. The boy sat by the water until the sun was touching the tip of his fingers only. Bishop asked him to recite it again. This time, the boy made no mistake and he ate his dinner in peace.
A relationship so dreadfully insincere had formed between the Bishop and the children but none was willing to tell. They would meet outside the church, standing close to the caramel columns, and laugh about the poise and dexterity of the choristers; twirling in the cold, unattainable bits of blinding knowledge. Then, they would run down the streets with their hands above their heads and color their faces with the spangled air of the streets. The sidewalks were controlled; pedestrians were half-running, half-walking, going to meet their futures.
Ten stopped suddenly to look around.
It was sometime later before the boy realized his sister had stopped. He led the other two back to where Ten now sat, covered in afternoon tears.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said.
The boy smiled at her, his looks resembling pity for both her and himself. She smiled back even though she was still crying and followed him.
The two girls stayed at the front, walking with ease down to their safe spot. The boy held his favorite sister by her hands, noting how skinny her wrists were. He told her, said she was a little too skinny and she laughed and she said she wasn’t, arguing about something that would outlive the moment. They turned away from the street that led to the church and instead of following the path that led home, they turned away in the opposite direction because, frankly, home was the water as the sun danced naked in it.
“Why did you stop?” he asked her suddenly.
“I don’t know,” she said and sniffed. She was not crying but there was a jagged white line across her cheeks; tears dried so quickly the boy mistook it as the grace of framed happiness.
He nodded, “Did you know that every stranger has a life as simple and complex as yours and mine?”
Ten frowned, asked, “How do you know that?”
The children of Bishop were not allowed to know things that were not framed by the women in white or by Bishop himself. If her brother knew these things, it meant he had slipped into the library in town and had taken a book secretly. Bishop did not like that.
“Well, it depends on how we view things and how we react to those things,” he said. He was paraphrasing but the idea was the same. “If we were to look at others in the same way as we view ourselves, we’d be able to understand it all.”
“I don’t understand,” she said to him.
He nodded. Finally, they were home.
The water was plain and still and naked. The sun was low in the sky, the wind throwing a vortex of grasses and dewdrops. All four of them sat on the steps saying nothing. It was not all the time they were allowed happiness in the form of dancing sunlight and the sweet smell of clean water.
“Tell us a story, Fifteen,” they said, shuffling their foot. Ten had curly hair so as she did that, they fell against her eyes. She blew air and laughed because she found quiet humor in the messiness. The other girls had straight hair like their mothers. Only the boy had a faint memory of her as he had told them before.
“She went to help people in the other side of the world,” he had said to him. She had left them but perhaps it was because of Bishop and his stringent rules that had caused her departure. The boy had a vague memory of her face as she kissed his cheeks. He did not know her that well.
The others had simply forgotten about her. She was easy to forget because she did not call or write or say something to them. He remembered her only because he wanted to have something, anything, that was not one-sided.
“I don’t have a story today,” he said, standing up. “But I want us to talk.”
The girls shook their heads.
He asked them, “What do you want when you grow up?”
Ten told him to start because she wanted to hear something dreamy, something tainted with the desire to become better.
“I imagine I’m all grown up and married,” he started. “My wife might be a teacher or a librarian. I’ll have two daughters.”
“What about me?” Seven asked, smiling shyly.
“I imagine you working in a coffee shop, smiling at strangers with messy hair,” he said.
She thought about it for a while and then shook her head. “What is coffee?”
And because the boy had only read about it, he said nothing.
Thirteen said, “I think I might become a chorister when I grow.”
The boy wanted to ask her why but chose not to. It was the sort of future she envisioned so he let her daydream about wearing white and golden robes and singing songs and hymns. He had never heard her sing but, of course, she would be exceptional.
It was Ten’s turn. “I think I might become a mother when I grow up.”
A shimmer of rain began to fall and the children dashed back home. It was evening or maybe almost. For dinner, there was a bowl of spaghetti and mint sauce. Then, they crept into their rooms. The three girls slept together in a large room where the stars were in awkward shapes, designed lightly over the walls. They slept in separate beds and dreamt separately but they lived together in simple lucidity.
The boy lived in the room two doors away. The room was small and had a single window and bars as though the Bishop believed he would someday run away. The bed was neat with two pillows. The lamplight reeked of still melancholy, the sort of feeling one might get from being lonely all of a sudden. In the bathroom, there was a single bar of Palmolive soap and a mirror broken at the sides like the claws of a witch. Fifteen fell asleep sometime around midnight although he swore he heard footsteps go past his door.
Bishop came to wake him up. “Get up, boy,” he said, “Where is Ten?”
Fifteen struggled on his feet and followed the grey-haired man out of the room. Ten’s bed was made, the pillow in neat positions. A corner of it was dipped, the sheets squeezed, a timely reminder that she had slept on the bed.
One of the women in white took the two girls into the painting room where she told them to carve out words. “Tell me where Ten is,” she said to them.
“We don’t know,” they said, “She was gone when we woke up.”
Bishop took the boy out of the house.
The sun was out fully, the birds were singing beautifully. It was a graceful day.
“Where do you think she might be?” Bishop asked, “Once I find her, I’m going to give her a good spanking.”
It was morning so they had the upper hand. Fifteen took the Bishop to the creek. It was quiet and undisturbed. They went through the town and they called her name and they strained their eyes against the sun. They met with scrofulous town’s men and they asked about her. By evening, Fifteen had grown scared. The Bishop went into his room to pray while the girls went to theirs to sleep. The third bed by the window remained empty for the night.
The next day, Bishop went into town to talk to the police. Two men followed him back and questioned the girls.
“I was sleeping,” Seven said, her lips shaking, her visions becoming blurry and wet.
“We talked before we fell asleep,” Thirteen said.
Fifteen gulped and sniffed and said he had heard footsteps go past his door by midnight.
“It could have been the girl,” one of the policemen said.
“She would not go out that late,” Bishop said.
“And yet she is missing.”
The sarcasm was great and treacherous so much that Bishop pulled back and shivered. It would be the first time the boy was to see his father like this.
“Has she ever done something like this before?”
“No,” said Bishop tentatively.
“We’ll search for her,” the second man said. “If she shows up, let us know.”
She did not show up that day.
Fifteen was troubled but more than that, he knew that he was lacking something and that he was living in the same knowledge everyone had. He searched the girls’ room, turning the sheets out, throwing the pillows aside until his heart ached. And he was searching like a mad man for a sign that could lead him to his sister. He turned the events of that day at the creek in his head. She knew nothing, would not leave the house unless he took her. Yet she was gone, disappearing like her existence was nothing, without a trace. In fact, she seemed like something he had made up in his mind.
Searching for a sign—any kind— steered him to make the greatest discovery ever: scratch marks on the floor by her bed. They were small marks, easily forgotten but the boy had held her hands. He knew her and perhaps, yes, this was the sign he’d been waiting for.
Or perhaps not. The marks had been made by Seven some time ago so that ruled everything out. By the ruling out of things, it meant that there was no single idea as to where she was. And yes, Ten stopped being Ten because a week had passed and her birthday too. The idea that she had left so suddenly or be taken away ripped the boy’s heart. The Bishop retreated steadily to his room and his hymns and the sun shone and the birds sang and the water flowed.
It was a month later, after the boy had waited and prayed for a sign, that he knew, somehow, he had caught the virus. He would find himself plunging into an abyss, untethered, dead and he would not know how to breathe or what to do or what to say. It was a punch to his guts, the falling of everything that used to keep him in place because he had loved his sister in that delicate way of loving something one couldn’t touch, swaying in the tainted and staggering approach of the sun and the moon and the stars. And because he had gotten a version of her and her messy hair and childish candidness, he knew he had not made her up.
He found himself under the water of the bathtub, sinking and unable to breathe, dying. And something or someone would pull him up and he would gasp for air until there was none left. Their childhood was broken because a curse had befallen him. Sometimes when the boy began to slip again, he would wonder what sort of dream he’d been having when she left or was taken away. Sometimes he hoped he had been dreaming about her and her future of being a mother.
Time came and time left and the world changed and the world did not. She did not come back. He saw girls all grown up with messy hair. He would hold their hands until they pulled away, threatening to call the cops, knowing they were not her.
The disease did not leave him but he grew up. And his sisters too and they married and left.
And he learned that her life had been the world to him and it had lived. He would be waiting for a sign from her until his death. And he would wait for her after death.