Dear Sister by Michelle Goldsmith

The creature from the water is long and sinuous, with fins like spiked fans, a huge wide mouth and feathery gills. More than anything it resembles a mudskipper or deep-sea fish, with an extra touch of the prehistoric. But you love it, and tell it so. It says it loves you too, so you entwine yourselves together in the shallows, and it’s better than that time in the hayloft with the boy from the next town over, which is all you have to compare it to. 

 

Afterwards, you sneak back up the dunes and return home. The door squeaks as you ease it open, and I listen to you tiptoe across our room and slip back into bed. I don’t tell. You’re my older sister and I love you, despite your wanton ways.

 

You do this often, on nights when the moon is full and the tide high. I begin to notice you struggling to lace your bodice and keeping on your big woollen cloak on balmy days. My heart is heavy for you, sure that each new day will see your secret discovered. Then one night I hear you wake, breathing strained. You leave the house to deliver amongst the dunes. It isn’t a human baby you birth there. At least, not entirely. Her mouth is too wide and she gulps the air like a fresh-caught fish. Delicate gills flutter on her neck. You baptise your daughter with salty tears, wade out and give her to the waves. You stand there watching long after she swims away.

 

In time, our parents arrange for you to marry. Your husband is a local man called Alphonse. He is tolerable, all considered. He’s kind enough and doesn’t drink to excess, unlike the husband they find for me. If the choice was ours, I think I’d have married Alphonse. You know but don’t seem to mind. You leave us alone whenever I come visiting. 

 

Over the years, you have four children by Alphonse, three boys and a girl, and you do a decent job of loving them, most of the time. I never bear a child of my own, so I’m always there to compensate for your occasional lapses in maternal feeling. I’m content enough. You spend many hours looking out to sea.

 

One morning, you find Alphonse slumped face down in his porridge. Dead by some failure of the heart. You change into your very best frock, lace up your good shoes and make for the cove. From the dunes, I watch you wade into the ocean, watch your body elongate, lined skin becoming smooth and sleek. Gills unfurl at your neck and your mouth draws into a wide, amphibious smile. You launch joyfully into the swell, cutting through the waves to join the two dark shapes waiting further out. All three of you head out for deeper waters, together. 

 

I miss you, sister. No matter how I try, my lungs just won’t take to water. Why did you leave me behind?