My sister tried to kill herself again yesterday.
I raced to the hospital with its antiseptic smell that never hides the tang of death, just like I always do, my keys engraving themselves into my hand, bleeding bleeding bleeding just like her, just like she always does. The nurse, with her shifting faces and voices, with her amorphous features directs me where to find her and leads me down the clone corridors which shift and pulse as if they know a secret about me and are trying to hold it in. The room, always the same room, no matter that were in Cape Town not Johannesburg, or Pietermaritzburg or Durban or all the myriad of other places that my sister has tried to end herself, is full of the sounds of machines bleeping and liquids dripping, that evil sound which Ive heard too often. There she lies, smug as a queen, amongst the wires and the lights and the scalpels and other sharp edged medical objects which are kept out of her reach. Father. Mother. Crowded around her like a shield, like they can keep her safe from the thing that crawls through her ear and tells her to end it, end it all. Theyre wrong you know, there isnt some invisible entity that tells her dark secrets and takes off her blindfold so she can see all the darkness present in the world. Its her. Its always been her; all along its always been her. She is the one who brings me nightmares and whispers sweet lies in my ears until I wish I could claw them off so that I wouldnt have to hear, until I wish that shed been born without a mouth or a tongue or the other things with which our skin shells make noise.
My mother says something, her voice a fray. With every stroke my sister cuts into herself, the fabric that makes up my mother becomes more frayed, the warp separating itself from the weft, again, again. Rachel, she says, referring to the thing in my sisters shell lying on the bed, Rachel needs to stay with you.
The machines make their noises. My father turns away. Rachel, the thinginthebed, grins, fingering her bandages. The world continues spinning through the universe, even though its heading toward entropy, even though Im heading toward entropy. I want to reach over and switch off the machines that keep her fed, the machines that keep her going and make her something like alive. I want to switch them off, take a crowbar to the windows, break this perfectly sterile little room, my sisters perfect little face, burn it down, burn it all down until theres nothing left, no hospital, no impassioned calls and pleas, no identical nurse, identical room, identical brood parasite, no goddamn thing thats taken over my sister. But I dont. I tape my dutiful smile to my face and nod and agree that its all for the best, that this time Rachel will get better, that this time, this goddamn time everything will be different.
A week has passed and so far Rachel seems normal, functioning, human. She eats, sleeps, doesnt talk much, but what can you expect from a would-be suicide? Maybe everything will be alright. No nightmares rip through my nights, no chill crawls over my skin when Rachel comes into the room. She stays out of my way and she stays out of Dereks way and she stays out of Chloes way. She watches TV and listens to the radio and dances when she hears a song she likes. She looks very peaceful when she dances, raising her skinny white arms and shaking her cornflower hair, twirling like a dervish. Currently thats the only thing that seems inhuman about her. She doesnt shriek like a trapped fox in the night, like she used to, she doesnt stroke her bandages as if they were her pets. Life is peaceful, as peaceful as it can be when Rachel is around. I dont believe it, not for a second. Rachel will find something in me to manipulate, will crawl into my mouth and look in my mind so that she can find what I fear and she will send it to me, will try to destroy me, because the ravening beast that is Rachel needs something to destroy and when it cant find another person it turns upon itself and I have to return to the hospital and see Rachel licking her lips and looking at her scars as if they were her lovers.
I lay curled up on the couch in Dereks arms and let his warm soap smell wrap enfold me. Derek makes me calm. Derek makes everything better. It doesnt matter that hes almost twenty years older than me, that his ex-wife lurks in the shadows like a thief, that his daughter has become more difficult as the months go by and bring her closer to her prickly adolescence. In his arms Im safe.
Hes reading the Mabinogion, a book that I gave to him. I know all the stories backwards and forwards: Arianrhod in her star castle, Branwen being sent to marry a man who will abuse her, Taliesin the Bard and Math the Magician. Theyre comforting and helped to calm me and hide me when I was young and Rachels fox shrieks tore through my atmosphere and made me want to curl up and hide. Nothing in there can hurt me, unlike all the things in Rachels head that can.
There was only one story that gave me nightmares: Blodeuwedd, who was made out of flowers to be a bride for a man who loved her beyond all reason. She was beautiful, the most perfect woman who ever existed but when Math made her he forgot to give her a heart and she tried to kill the person who loved her most in the world before she was turned into an owl. The parallels between that and my own life were too terrifying to comprehend.
When we were young, I would follow Rachel and ensure that no-one picked on her or bullied her. So devoted, my mother would say. Cassandras so devoted to her sister. It made her happy, that we seemed to be so close, so loving with each other, that I was the dragon-protector to my beautiful little sister. She was wrong. I wasnt protecting her from the world, I was protecting the world from Rachel, Rachel whose appetite for misery grew and grew and was never, could never be assuaged.
When Rachel was born my father took me to the hospital so I could see my perfect little snowdrop and kitten-fluff sister, so I could also look at her and fall in love. When I walked into the room she was crying, not unnatural because babies always cry. Rachels cries were unnatural though, high and hooting like an owls attack, digging and clawing their way down my throat and grasping at my insides with freezing fingers. They were the cries of a predator who has seen its prey and let the blood-lust consume it. Nothing human could make that noise.
We brought her home and still she cried and wailed, growing more and more inhuman by the day. My parents couldnt see it, they could only coo and cluck at their little girl and all I could do was wish that I was the tower-Cassandra that I had been named for, wish that I could be safe up high with no screams of cat-owl-fox babies to follow me inside of my dreams and make me writhe just as badly as she did.
Rachel grew up and was beautiful, a flower and I grew up and was tormented. I threw my soul to the tar gods, she would say and then she would laugh, her high witchy cackle. I threw my soul to the tar gods and they were pleased, they were so pleased and they made me into something radiant with angel-bone wings and spider-web hair. Then she would fall silent and look at me and give me her Cheshire-cat grin, her grandmother-wolf promise. All the better to eat you with my dear. All the better to consume you so thoroughly that it will seem like you never existed in the first place. Cassandra.
Rachel did seem to get better but I didnt believe it for a second. I saw the way her smile changed from drugged and empty to something full of dark promises. I waited, waited for the attack, waited to be dragged into an inferno which would shock even Dante. I waited.
I still had no nightmares. My book was going well, Derek was beginning to talk about wedding plans, Chloe stopped being angry and started to confide in me. On the surface everything was perfect. Rachel gave me no chills, Rachel ate her food and took her medicine like a good girl. Rachel talked about getting a job and spoke of the boy she had met. Rachel acted like a normal twenty-two year old girl, took her bandages off and didnt replace them with new ones and didnt look at her scars with longing. It was only there, in her razor blade, split open smile that I could see that she was coming back, that she was all better. I watched and I waited. Nothing.
Then came the night when she shrieked and wailed at Derek, when she shook so hard that it amazed me that bits of her didnt fall off and show the mass that she had always been inside. I stepped in the room and she stopped, as if she had been switched off, mute as a doll.
What happened? I asked Derek who opened his hands and showed me the cherry-red and drowning-blue pills that Rachel had to take. He tipped them in my hand and walked out. Youre not taking your pills? I said to Rachel who stood and looked at me and then walked out, following Derek. Rachel always takes her pills, Rachel loves pills whether they are the means to her end, or whether they fill up the emptiness inside of her. Rachel not taking her pills was new territory.
I put the pills back into their little treasure-glass jars.
That night I sat in front of my monitor and typed like a fiend. The ideas and words just kept pouring out, as if the stars themselves had aligned and caused this sudden flash of inspiration in my head. The screen was a starburst, a magnifying glass and all that I poured into it became greater, grander, more poetic and powerful and true than anything I had ever written before, than anything I had ever thought I could write.
Cass? Youre still awake? Derek said from behind me, but I couldnt tear my eyes away to smile at him, to tell him how well it was all going. Cassandra, baby, its four oclock in the morning. He picked me up and cradled me as if I was the most precious thing in the world. He took me to bed.
I saw Rachel in the kitchen as he carried me past. She did not look pleased.
Chloe began to have nightmares. Terrible, terrible nightmares that would cause her to seize and shake, that would drag screams from her mouth and drag her fingernails across her skin so that her sheets every morning would be crusted with the blood from her shallow cuts. Derek took her to see psychologists so that she could get better. She would go twice a week but nothing would work, nothing would stop her from tearing the night up.
Derek and Rachel would fight, Rachels banshee shrieks escalating and escalating, always drawing on to more rage, to more madness.
I wrote. I typed until my fingers bled, until the only thing I could see was the flashing letters arranging themselves before my eyes, until the only thing I heard was the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard. I didnt hear Rachels shrieks or Dereks, didnt hear Chloes wails. I could do nothing but write, could not drag myself away. Coffee. Cigarette. Chair. The only thing that my life was made up of was the screen. I didnt eat, didnt sleep, purging myself of those mortal weaknesses so that the beauty of my book would transcend through them all.
One night Chloe collapsed in my arms, the track marks of her nightmares written across her face and arms. She sobbed, sobbed, sobbed, soundlessly, her skinny back quaking against my knees. I came out of my literary-fuelled world and realised that I had been remiss. Poor Chloe, with her child-womans face and her tender personality. I knew exactly who was the cause of her madness.
Derek sent Chloe to stay with her mother, drove her there himself and I waited until the spider returned. There she was, pretty little Rachel to whom I was so fucking devoted.
This has to stop. I told her.
She merely smiled her cigarette burn smile, her teeth a promise and a threat.
Stop it Rachel. Stop it now.
She did reply then, her voice both high and low, ugly and beautiful, just like her. Shouldnt you be writing Cassandra?
I grabbed her and shook her skinny shoulders. Enough. I shouted. Enough. What are you pulling this time Rachel!? No Im not going to fucking write, not while youre torturing Chloe. I pushed her away and tried to block out the thoughts of how easy it would be to snap the twigs that lurked under her skin, to break her and scratch her out so that she couldnt torture me anymore, to pull out the dark thing that lurked inside of her and burn it even though it shrieked and wailed.
That night Derek and I had a fight. It flared up suddenly and with it came a disgust that came out of nowhere, a disgust for Derek and his middle-aged paunch and his receding hairline and his canvases covered in blue and black and purple paint that seemed so contrived in their abstractness. Then as quickly as it had come it was gone and we were clawing at each other like starving animals, tearing each others clothes off. I hoped it would purge me, take out Rachels taint and the taint of my book tunnel-vision.
I didnt write. My computer seemed like a monster, a trap seeking to lead me into the labyrinth so that I wouldnt be able to escape from the Minotaur that wore my sisters face and tried to consume me. It was hard to resist its pull, hard to keep myself away from it and harder still to pick it up and send it crashing to the floor, harder still to break it and crack it beyond all recognition, just like I wish I could crack myself, crack the world that had let me be given a nightmare as a sister, crack her.
I told Derek that I would marry him and my days passed in a blur of plans and paper and plates and frosty lace that spilled all around me and never felt like a trap. Derek found a priestess to unite us, two artistic souls who against all the odds had found each other on a rock teeming with millions of people, swarming with billions of orphans with hungry mouths looking for love.
Then came the day when I found Derek lying in the kitchen clutching a bottle of vodka, lying in a constellation of broken glass amid an ocean of spilt alcohol. Derek, my Derek, with his black hair and turpentine roughened hands who lay on the floor and didnt breathe no matter how much of my air I gave to him, no matter how I pushed his chest and willed him alive. The ambulance came and took him away and the coroner, who was a completely new experience for me, who had his own face that tried to mould itself into an expression of compassion told me of how he died, overdosing, choking on my sisters pills which I knew that she had shoved down his throat.
Shed had so much practise at trying to bring death. I wish that it had worked on her the innumerable times she had done it and not on Derek who deserved to live, who I deserved to live.
I came home and saw her admiring her scars in the mirror.
You never got it. She said, not even turning to look at me. They were always a picture, always a picture. She did turn and look at me then. He thought he was so artistic, so fucking bohemian. He wasnt good for you Cassandra and he wouldnt touch me and show you how bad he was so... She laughed, a high-pitched choking gurgle and I saw that her scars really were a picture, saw what I had always tried to avoid, that on her body Rachel had scratched my likeness.
What do you want from me? I squeaked, even though I knew, I knew.
She came towards me and I saw the charred inside of her mouth, the emptiness of her eyes and knew that she was the red queen who ensured the death of species, that she was my madness and destruction and I saw how much she liked the idea, how much she longed for it, how she longed to eat me bones and all, until there was nothing left. I looked at her, Rachel, my destruction.
She opened her mouth and said write and write I did, I wrote and wrote and wrote until I wore down my fingers and wore out my life and understood that my sister wasnt Blodeuwedd the owl, but something far more subversive, a being that fed upon my inspiration and my life and wouldnt stop until she had all of me, heart and soul.