When I was eight, my sister moved home and transformed the games room into a cave. The couch became a bed and Mum tucked her in with her old teddy bear. In my memory, my sister stayed in the cave for a hundred years. Dust spread over her skin and spiders spun her a garland of webs.
Time stretched and thinned.
The lights in the cave were dim, the air thick and still. I’d poke my head in, then creep away again. Outside, it was bright and loud with birds and kids. Inside, my brother and I whispered and scurried past the cave. I know Mum drove my sister to appointments, but I also know that my sister laid there for a hundred-year spring, while stalactites grew around her, drip by drip. A specialist said my sister should write things down. I offered up my favourite notebook, which had moons on the outside and nothing on the inside. I’d hoped to fill it with spells, but I didn’t know any. It sat on the doona with the old bear and some wizard books – childhood tokens for someone who’d grown up and then down again. I wanted her to want the offerings, but they just built up around her in the dark.
Time ran on a loop.
Mum cut an apple into thin, lovely slices and arranged them on a plate. She pressed the plate into my hand and sent me into the cave. “Tell her about your day. If she wants you to eat it again, say no.” I wove around sleeping shapes – chairs and toys cocooned in a wicker basket. Eventually, I reached my sister in the cave’s belly. Stale food sat on the mattress like unwanted visitors: cold toast with a rat bite, congealed soup, an unused spoon, half a Freddo Frog.
She turned an eye to the new plate. “You eat it.”
“I’m not hungry.” My voice felt bright and false.
Her lips got thin. “I’m not hungry either.”
“Did you see the notebook? The one with the moons?”
“Yeah. You can have it back.”
“Oh. Um. It’s for you.”
She put the plate of apple slices on the notebook. The old bear was hibernating with his eyes open.
I changed the subject. “What if glow worms live in the lights in here?”
“You would think that.”
It was her way of reminding me that I was a child, which was the wrong sort of person to be. The apple slices would go soft and yellow like the bear’s fur, like all the apple slices that came before. The brightness outside got me blinking. I sat with the rest of my family at the table and ate a hot, square meal. The seat next to mine was empty.
Later, Mum collected the apple slices and the other old food, frowned at the nibbles, and scraped everything into the bin. Then the loop restarted with a new day and new apple slices, crisp and white.
In my memory, my sister stayed in the cave for a hundred years. Dust spread over her skin and spiders spun her a garland of webs.
Once, I overheard a conversation between Mum and my sister.
My sister said, “Of course I’m not going to eat them – they go brown and gross almost immediately.”
Mum replied, “They’re easier to digest when they’ve oxidised. I read about it.”
I didn’t know what to think about this so I put it aside for later.
Into this strangeness came a baby bird, wriggling feebly on the lawn.
“Let’s bury it!” my brother said. I remember he was holding his plastic spade.
“It’s not dead,” Dad spluttered. He gently scooped the bird into the spade, and took it to Mum.
I peeled myself away to share the excitement with my sister.
“There’s a baby BIRD! Come and SEE!”
Something rustled in the gloom. “It’s just going to die anyway.”
“Okay, but, no, but what if it doesn’t?” I scrabbled for something solid. “Mum will save it.”
My sister gave one of her little pauses: the ones where it felt like she was thinking something true and mean, but not saying it. “I’m trying to sleep. Close the door.”
I shut out the gloom and tried to shut out thoughts about the baby bird dying.
In the time before my memories begin, Mum found a different nestling in the grass, with no mother or nest in sight. A vet advised her on how to save it. Mum worried the bird would die, but it kept living. She took it outside so it could work its wings, and noticed other fledglings with their mother. In the end, the mother bird taught her own long-lost baby how to fly. If a blackbird in the garden was acting friendly, Mum told my brother and me that it was probably Mrs Blackbird – the name she gave to the bird she’d saved. I thought it was a glowing ending to remember in the dark.
Mum made a tea towel nest in a shoebox and said it was my sister’s job to take care of the bird. The cave felt friendlier once the bird moved in. There were still glittering eyes and mossy rocks that could trip you faster than your own words. There was still my sister, faded to a stranger. And yet, if we went in there, we could see the bird. We talked about the bird the way other people discuss football. We were afraid it would die, so we were always acknowledging that it could die.
My brother and I perched among the full plates to marvel at the bird’s ugliness. I remember the bird’s eyes as two blueberries grown over with skin. Mainly, we admired his beak, which was of mythic proportions. He opened and closed it a lot, like he was looking for things to say. Weeks passed and the bird kept not-dying. Our hearts went home to our chests. The bird started squeezing feathers out of his waxy skin. In the cave, our small talk changed shape without growing. We started speculating about what the baby bird would end up looking like.
My brother and I were both hoping he’d be a blackbird when he grew up, like Mrs Blackbird.
We consulted Mum, who said, “What? If it makes it? Oh, I don’t know. A crow. Look at that beak.”
“He’s going to grow into a hippogriff,” my sister said. She’d recently picked up the wizard books from her pile of offerings. Our sister’s thoughts always counted more than anyone’s. We named the baby bird “Beaky” after the hippogriff from her book. Mum said nothing.
My sister started sitting up with pillows behind her, the shoebox nest by her side.
On some days, she cracked the curtains and let some light sneak in. Once or twice, when I opened the door to the cave, she was writing in the moon notebook under a finger of sunlight. I shut myself out again. It’s hard to write secrets and read 400-page novels in the dark; with a little light, the cave started changing. Eyes stopped glittering on the ceiling. The webs thinned into a kind of lace.
At school, a girl I wanted to be friends with told me I was fat. At the dinner table some years earlier, my sister ate in the seat next to mine, still in her school uniform. I chattered at her through bites of food but she didn’t say much back. Her gaze was caught on her reflection in the black, uncurtained window. Mum made her usual joke about it and my sister didn’t laugh. Back in the cave, my sister and I spun ideas about our potential hippogriff – what he did when no one was watching, what he’d be when he was grown.
Mum worried out loud about how we’d teach the bird to fly, but to me it felt like a good worry, because Mum had solved this problem before. I couldn’t imagine anyone having the same problem twice. My sister still lived in the cave, but there weren’t so many webs in her hair – how could they last when she was starting to move again? There were a few more bites out of the offerings too. It’s harder to remember these gradual shifts, but I know they must have happened because I know how the story ends.
One afternoon, my brother and I got home from school and Mum told us that the bird had died.
Time got stuck on the memory’s sharp edge.
The three of us were in the kitchen. Mum said it was really to be expected. Our bird was just so little, much littler than the last bird. When I went into the cave, my sister was lying down again. My face felt wet and puffy; it was too dark to see if hers was the same.
The floor was so thick with toadstools that walking through them left footprints. I didn’t like the soft crunch of stepping on them.
That day was a different kind of bad, so I waited for her to change her mind, call me back. She turned away. I stepped back in my own footprints on the way out.
Mum gently wrapped the bird in his tea towel, laid him in his nest and closed the lid. We buried him in the backyard. I don’t remember if my sister left the cave to say goodbye, but I doubt it. Thinking about it now, I can’t imagine that Mum gave Mrs Blackbird a name like that until she survived growing up.
Mum took my sister shopping, then she did it again, then one day my sister borrowed the car to buy snacks. At some point, my sister started to buy and eat a particular yoghurt again and again, and so, somehow, we all did, until she was sick of it and so were we. Then she started buying a particular muesli bar.
I put these memories away, but I’m still finding pieces of them.
When my sister moved out again, she left behind:
• The old bear
• The wizard books
• The half-used-moon notebook
There was an empty seat at the table again, but I still set five places. In the cave, Mum picked every toadstool and made Dad chip away at the stalactites. If my brother and I helped, it was only in small ways.
Once something has been transformed, it’s impossible to change it back completely. Memories leave a stain. The games room was back, but if anyone dimmed the lights, silver spiders started spinning.
That moon notebook orbited for years. Sometimes it appeared in a pile of papers or an old drawer, and I’d pick it up then put it back without opening it. I didn’t want to be someone who read someone else’s diary.
When I was a teenager alone with my questions, I dug up the diary and devoured it. There were a few pages of unnamed hurts and fears in my sister’s rounded handwriting. I remember she wrote about how strong she thought Mum was, that sometimes it was too much. I remember she didn’t mention anybody else in the family in any entry. Then I turned another page and found her lists. Each page started with the date, followed by an impossibly short list of foods consumed. A typical list might say:
• No breakfast
• Lunch: 4 Pringles
• Snack: 2 Freddos
• Snack: ½ apple slice
• Dinner: 2 bites lasagne (felt sick)
I kept turning pages, reading lists, remembering offerings. Some lists crept up to almost normal amounts of foods; others shrank to nearly nothing. They felt far more personal than the diary entries. Then I turned the page again, and it was empty, as was every page after. I put the notebook back, and moved things on top of it so no one (Mum) would know I’d been digging up my sister’s memories. They’d stained me, even though they weren’t mine.
In a glowing ending, the bird and my sister would lose that fragile, waxy look forever, and grow strong, feathered wings. There would be no memory stains on people or rooms, and time would settle and roost. My sister wouldn’t spend the next hundred years making different caves, offerings piling up around her. As spring transformed the outside world into something even brighter, she’d step out of the cave forever with the hippogriff at her side.
They’d both find a way to fly away without really leaving.