Her voice on the phone does not surprise me. It is my birthday, a time for sisters to call, to remember. But this has not always happened; details keep her away, busy, trapped. After hello she will not speak above a whisper, a steady, low drone like bees or the mumbled prayers of monks. I have to move away from my family and the TV to hear her. In the dark of my dining room, a table she has never sat around during the twelve years I have lived here, I listen as she describes her drawings of the lake where she plans to kill herself. This has been our story for years. There are sixty-eight pages in the sketchbook she says, proud and possessed by this fact. In the background I can hear the turning and shifting of paper.
“I am here now,” she says, her voice near sleep. And I look through the curtains to my backyard where darkness has cloaked the trees, canceled all shadows. In California, three hours away, she stares at a disc of late afternoon sun over this body of water she has selected. She does not remember it is my birthday. The tremble in her voice, a small hitch at the end of each sentence like a limp on a very old woman, makes me believe she will do as she says. When I hang up the phone, she will put down her pen, back down the access road and hit the accelerator. The last page of her sketchbook shows the car partially submerged.
“My copper heart floats out the window when I go down.”
I think of the letters she has sent me over the years, the margins packed with hearts and knives, chainsaws and hypodermic needles. These images are the wallpaper of our days.
“I need it to stop making so much noise.” In spite of the miles, the prairies and mountains that separate us, I can see her desperate eyes, darting insects against a screen. I have been here before, yet the stiff fear in my throat is new. I bring words as always: some mountain hike on my last visit, the childhood nights at our lake house when we watched raccoons dig through the garbage and laughed until dawn, the German lessons she told me she was going to start at the Community College. Finally, I remind her of her grandson, living with his dad only an hour from her. The holidays are near. She stops speaking. A soft hiccup travels the dark corridor between us.
Then a pen scratching. I try to picture slender black lines dissecting the field of white as she conjures her next move.