Wallace’s Line is “a hypothetical line dividing animals derived from Asian species on the west from those derived from Australian species on the east.”
—Dictionary of Theories
“The distributions of many bird species observe [Wallace’s Line], since many birds refuse to cross even the smallest stretches of open ocean water.”
There is no right language for grief.
They say that when a sibling dies, memories of long-forgotten moments bubble up from the tar pit of the subconscious. It is, they say, the heart exorcising the ghosts of childhood, and the mind revising the past to close yet another chapter.
And now I know they are right: My elder sister died—how too soon!—an agonizing death from pancreatic cancer. Toward the end, her physical pain grew so intense she was removed from home hospice, where my younger sister, who’s a nurse, and I worked 24/7 as our sister’s keepers. In the hospital, she was put into a coma to get ahead of her exponentially increasing pain. Yet she still screamed for hours at a time—until finally, with the help of much anesthesia, her breath ceased.
My sister’s cancer coincided with my husband’s cancer that coincided with news reports of bee colony extinctions, declining fish and amphibian populations, shrinking ice shelves, and the gloom of so many other disasters portending human extinction.
O heavens! Sometimes a star shines on the dirtiest thing! Why’s the night dark, Little Bird? Why does the spring fall headlong into death? We don’t know where we’re going yet, and not a one of us has a map.
There’s a bird trapped in the attic.
For 18 years, my sister, Diane, and I slept in the same bed. We fought. We folded a line down the center with our separate blankets. Cross this just once and I’ll…We stepped a line down the center of the bedroom. Cross this ever and you know what!
[If I was my sister’s keeper, then I did not do my job.]
She was two years older and believed in God in a way I could not endorse: hers the god of fire and brimstone; mine the god of wind through trees. On her deathbed big enough for only one person, she leveled her gaze and asked to see her other sister, the younger one, the sister she said was not poisoning her.
[If there’s grace in dying, then living’s also a lie.]
do not cross | examine
do not cross | walk
do not cross | eyes
do not cross | paths
do not cross | me
do not cross | the line
Someone must have left a door open, so…
Sing, Sister, from your feverish coma, a blue-hot awful song.
Go further, the hardest further, the broken blue early call to beyond.
Sing, Sister, and fly hard. Take the serious swim in heaven’s blue sea,
and let it all be a tell, a bend, a last.
Sister’s sundowner’s settled fully descended and she plucked from the air nothing that must have seemed to her superstrings vibrating between two universes to tape to a sheet of white paper painted with nothing and she was happy. “How strange the watery wash,” she nearly sang, “the unblued checkered trace!”
Strange, too, the blood we shared, our blue veins a linear past indigo dark as the night outside windows of overheated bedrooms. O Sister, O Sister, your sad long hopscotch hop!
Yearning cures the death of a bee. Its transparent belly and soft-tingle legs still alighting. Death wrenched me, wrenches me still. Soft’s a bee, the bee your bee and mine on this stone-slab table. O where be the vanishing line? Why be the line ever? Night’s curled as the hot leaves. Whole hives die and whole species fade to behind the frontier between present and past.
Dear Beautiful Sister:
Be then the vanishing line! Be the line ever!
Outside, a bird cries toward the vast vastness of morning into morning. The endless gawp of desert-cooked air’s silent. Step between this and then, between know and wince, and squint our sun to blood veined behind our eyes. I hear you call, Sister, from the dead, a cry, a letter, a watery silence: “Yet!”
…now there’s a bird trapped in the attic.
O bold and salty line! Forgive our stark timidity! Unable to say love without cringing, or sorry without choking. Not even swifts could traverse the trail of saltwater of oceans and tears between us. Not even now the moon you’ll not see once again. And yet, sometimes a star shines on the dirtiest thing! The ugliness of cruel and untempered childhood blanches beautiful.
Can you help me get there, Heartness? Can you help me hear me ask:
Genes are steel, aren’t they? They’re iron grates scabbing the scalps of male offspring. In this way too shall I not breach the line oily on such a blue, blue sea?
[If my sister was my thicker-than-water, then water’s air.]
Do whole worlds evolve without me and within? Meanwhile, is there always meanwhile?
So far, the dead do not speak except in dreams.
That bird will not stop singing!
I dream of small animals I must rescue: from tornadoes, from floods, from fire, from starvation and disease. Last night I dreamt you were a yellow kitten tortured by death’s appetite while I observed, tortured by your screeling pain, yet helpless, not helping enough, not knowing how to help, not helping myself to your rescue, not calling, Help help! Some fire’s alighting! And you, scorched. And me, flushed from your bedside burning.
[If I am my sister’s keeper then I kept nothing but your squall.]
Little Kitten, yellow and scabbed, I am so so sorry, loathing my ignorance, and fear’s not penance enough. Besides, expiation’s just a bootlick to the past that’s not here, no more and always. In that dream, I was tired even in sleep so I closed you in a cardboard box with one of your own species—doomed, too, a quiet white cat—thinking that with such companionship may there at least be one moment of pleasure after sting before nothing. And I handed the box across the sill to the nameless hands in darkness that would put your yowls to sleep out of my head.
[If love is perfect flight then you and I be severed wings.]
Yes, we’re winged wings of different ilk: your father of mites and thorny locust, mine of foxtail and sap, theirs—those sibling others—of tumbled stones and sleet. In the scorched desert of your afterlife, sparrows hop across plains of tar and their feet are cooked off. The wind’s whistle fades to howling. Bees aren’t. Nothing’s righter.
[If reprieve is night’s chill and serenade, then it’s high noon eternal.]
Listen to me, there’s a bird trapped in the attic!
Ours is a logical story: A long line of deep ocean. Her skin sallow, her eyes shallow waters to deeper fathoms. That’s the past. That’s ages ago. Now love’s a kind of seeing dropped upon vast waters and disappeared.
So it is always about the nature of line these days. Between this and that, here and there, then and now, sooner and later.
As children we promised each other to come back from the dead with an answer. What it’s like. What scars rend the night or day after after. What’s.
I’ve seen a blue whale’s descent in every dream since your death, Sister, just a fragment, sliver of tail and the foamy slush-hush of froth folding back over itself. In the unborn sea of infinity we’re less than silence: some cankered comet blazing past stars newborn or waning. Whales echo deep.
Do you swim now unfettered?
Ah, I see: Somewhere there’s blue beyond my eye’s iris. Somewhere, Little Sparrow, there’s where you became not ever never again flanking me.
A scrawny robin cocks her head. How deeply must she listen to hear worms in this parched desert of your dying?
We are that bird’s lice.
Our grandmother disappeared from our helix doubled. Left a lineage of grief and god-leaning. Every Frenchness or Scotchness or whatness in her wrung out and hung dry on the line stretched back centuries upon centuries upon the sediments upon the beginning.
[There is no beginning.]
Isn’t it really just this and these things we suffer now? Secrets shrugged for lack of leisure, yes, that sweltered leisure of looking back. As if what’s gone now shall come again. The father, the son, the holy you-now-ghost wing-caught and searching.
Every bird’s a tenterhook. Every wing’s a sigh. The beak’s tucked out of sunlight in sleep.
and | yet
Sometimes in the night in the dark you’d wake me with a prod from your plumpness and whisper, Did you hear that? And the plaster in the attic would roll down the slant of slats and you’d whisper, Do you hear that now?
And I’d say, It’s just mice.
And you’d say, I can’t sleep.
And I’d say, Go to sleep.
And you’d repeat, I can’t.
And I’d roll over knowing that you lay awake in the big dark-eyed terror of what you did not know.
Your eyes are brown. | Mine are blue.
You told me I was adopted. | How I wished it true.
The year we lived in the house on Patterson Street, the year our mother went briefly mad and rose like a Gorgon against us, I raised white mice until they overbred and began to starve, all of them. But before, when there were just two, I’d tuck one or the other in the front pocket of my shirt and find you reading always and say, “I have a question for you.” And you’d cock your head listening deeply until the mouse crawled out of my pocket and you’d scream.
[If I am my sister’s keeper, then I have bent the key.]
Deathbed’s a stone-slab on which you screamed, you screamed for hours, your hands reaching for I don’t know what.
Here’re my hands, my love, my wing.
I hear you whisper, Sister, yet.
“…yet…” she said.
The line of gaze is never vertical, is slant and sleepy. So tell me: How did we, how could we move so far from our date of arrival? Between maternal and mother came: wrought such sorrowful migration. Islands spread in the rift of brine and bend of earth yearning toward and toward and only toward. And between islands lost of light and line, so similar these species, and yet…
You are east under sunrise. | I am sunset over west.
Is this the little girl I carried, slight sting
on the back of the knee?
between the lavender blooms, there the delicate bees, when nothing seemed it would not last for always, even we islands remained, though isolated by deep waters of love prevented, love gone perpetually awry: that migration of species, that leading-by-the-nose final evolution of rough distant breathing.
Will someone please, please, please let the bird out of the attic?
Death’s the invisible line, the you the I, the wall of glass that can’t be navigated. Birds pummel themselves to escape what can’t be flushed: lineage of women breaking apart like beaks upon the rocks. A soft startling pirouette of a broken-winged fall. A sister’s silent gaping mouth behest: “…please…”
- Line the page of our life our cell with salt.
- Let the salt simmer in water of streams waded knee-deep.
- God’s a cupping overhead. Sun’s light. Trees this stand of shadow. So serious and young you in your sea-swishing, fingertips wingtips across a blade of refracted sun. You cock your head and squint. And smile. No one’s said a thing except now I love you.
Now that the house is gone the mice have gone and the attic’s a memory of bird’s nest and all sibling aflutter and achirp. The five of us: sparrows: plain common birds and you who’s tame, it seems, in each dream now. Tame and craving affection, is it really you? Tiny little head! Liceless spread of feathers! That big white dead cat’s your escort into death, and there’s nothing I can do, it seems, to delay him though I try. Tried. I pushed closed the door, but you know as well as I that door had no lock, no knob, just a fingerhole through which to peer into the lamplit room pink as your fevered cheeks when you could no longer stand and I could no longer let you:
“Please, oh please!” you said. Said that, once bedridden, death’s then soon. So you pleaded, “Please, oh please!”
Why these last words caught in my craw, little bird?
That big white cat’s your cancer
[If there’s forgiveness in your eyes, then let me hear some starlight’s singing.]
Someone left the door open, so, finally…
Listen, beloved Sister evermore, to this last night whisper:
We are yet. We were never and.
[If I am my sister’s keeper, then
Why do these maps take so goddamn long?
Shhhh, now, yes, yes, I love you, goodbye.
Why does grief?