Melanie McCabe

The Secret She Knows – Or Does Not

My sister and I learned early the power of clandestine knowledge. Of stealth. Of the story no one could tell but the two of us because we were the ones who were writing it.

The winter I was nine and she was five, a blizzard came to our world—erased the boundaries that we counted on, changed the landscape we had learned into a vast, uncharted universe. Plunging into that deep snow, subsumed by it to my chest—and in Terri’s case, to her collarbone— we knew instantly that the rules were changed. That the house we left behind us was a country departed, with laws we need no longer honor.

Once my father had shoveled down to the street, there rose on either side of this path sheer, smooth walls of snow that could be tunneled into. There we began to dig and to burrow, creating for ourselves a white and hidden world in which we were the sole citizens. At twilight we had found our way deep into the far reaches of our yard. We were huddled there in that cold clubhouse, pretending to be something that we were not—explorers, pioneers of an unknown Arctic realm—when the sound of our mother’s voice penetrated the hard-packed walls of our cave, calling our names in a summons to come in, to become again who we truly were—to come home.

Neither of us moved. Neither of us called out in answer. There was no need for me to hold my finger to my lips to silence Terri, for instinctively, we both knew that we had made an unspoken pact as soon as our names rang out over the fading light. There was a power in our silence. In our secret alliance. We alone knew that we existed—that we were alive and breathing in our frozen sanctuary.

Our mother continued to call to us— at first, annoyed, and then, increasingly, alarmed. As the crescendo of panic rose in her voice, our exhilaration rose, too—at least, at first. In our mute partnership, we were suddenly at the helm of our lives—in control of what happened and what happened next in a way that we had seldom experienced.

What was it that finally tipped us back into the selves we knew? I think it was a sound that neither of us had ever heard before. In the cries of our names across what was then street-lit, diamond-glittered snow, there was a long and held note of something that frightened us both. I know now that it was despair— the imminent plummet from a precipice into real grief. We scooted through the narrow tunnel as fast as we could—not to save ourselves, for we knew we would certainly be in trouble for our defiance. Our haste was to save our mother; our urgency was to obliterate from the air the sorrow we had never heard in her voice before.

***

Once upon a time all of our secrets were shared ones. As the older sister, I was the author of plots, subterfuge, and mayhem, and she was my secondary character, the sidekick, written into every narrative, speaking the words I coaxed from her. She was a loyal lieutenant, a willing conspirator. I knew what would happen in the turn of every page, and for years our tale spooled out like thread, straight and secure, and passed effortlessly through the eye of the needle.

But then came death. My father’s. At twelve, Terri teetered on the thin ledge between childhood and whatever would come after it. I had already crossed over. I glanced back at her, and the Sun-In streaked, Marlboro-smoking, scrawny tough girl with blue lids and shaky eyeliner stared back at me. She was too busy pushing hard at the edges of her world to listen to any words that came from the heart of it.

One autumn evening she argued with my mother and disappeared. Mom called the police and a starched young man in blue sat on the edge of our ottoman and wrote my words down in a book.  Our house smelled of air freshener, traces of marijuana. The only phone we owned was black, heavy, and rotary dialed. It didn’t ring. Leaves fell from the hickory and turned in red and gold cyclones across the grass. I walked up and down neighborhood streets calling her name. She never answered.

In the morning she walked in the door as though it had never happened. There were twigs in her hair, dirt stains on her jeans. She was done with being angry for a while. She ate Frosted Flakes at the kitchen counter and my mother said not a word. The world revolved.

***

Secrets shared. Secrets withheld. Secrets betrayed. No single human being in this world knew me better than my sister. No other had ever infuriated or shamed me as she had. She was passionate and volatile, intelligent and conniving. She craved attention and would do anything to make someone laugh. She lived by other rules and broke the ones I counted on. She was fiercely loyal, except when she wasn’t. If I had to spend the rest of my life on a deserted island with only one person, it would be my sister. If I had to spend the rest of my life on a deserted island with only one person, it would be anyone but my sister.

“Promise you’ll never tell,” were words I heard often. The admonition usually came with an insurance policy: “If you tell, I’ll let Mom know where you really were Friday night”; “If you tell, I’ll embarrass you in front of Greg/Jim/John/Insert-Name-Here.” She knew me well. Her threats were nearly always instinctive, spot-on, and effective.

When Terri died on the third day of 2015, I waited. I waited for her to tell me the biggest secret of all. Throughout her adult years, she had periodically frequented clairvoyants, mediums, seers into the Great Beyond. Most Sundays she went to a mainline church, keeping her foot firmly in the door of the gospel we were raised on, but there were other Sundays she made furtive visits to a fringe congregation down the road from my home—a metaphysical chapel. She forked over money she didn’t have to obtain readings, to quell her fears, to conjure the voices of those who went before us.

After my father died, we grieved, but we grieved in different directions. One day, decades after this death, she called me, so excited I could barely understand her. She had a tape of Daddy speaking from the Other Side! It was proof, she said. If I listened to it, I would no longer scoff. I would be convinced. But before she could bring the tape to me, her then-husband destroyed it, decrying it as “dangerous and satanic.” Reaching across the divide to that other shore would only let in the devil, he said—not the dearly departed.

I hadn’t believed that the tape was legitimate. I was too grounded in reality. At least, 99% of me was. But there was a rogue and restless 1% that had longed to listen to what had been recorded on that reel.

A year after my mother’s death in 2012, Terri again returned to visit the medium, and then swore to me that, through him, she had heard our mother’s voice. What was she seeking in that voice? Absolution. Forgiveness. Hope that somewhere, somehow, our mother continued. I let her hang on to the peace it brought her. I didn’t try to refute it. Because by then, my sister was terminally ill. If believing that my mother had spoken to her brought her peace, I would not be the one to take that faith away.

***

My sister could never keep a secret for long. The power that welled up in her when she held a confidence on her tongue was a giddy drug. For a trembling moment, if she told what she knew, all eyes would be on her. All attention would be hers.

I live alone now. At night my house is clamorous with the silence that has become the steadiest noise of my life. As I round a corner into a room, turn at the landing of the stairs, or catch my reflection in a window late at night, I wait for that silence to be broken. I listen for her voice, watch for her face to appear behind me as I glance into a mirror.

I long to be haunted.

I wait on a ghost.

“Just listen, Mel!” she will say. “Listen and you’ll realize that you were wrong all along.”

Each night, my ears strain hard into the persistent hush that is my world. I am waiting to hear the only secret that my sister has ever been able to keep.

 

Melanie McCabe is the author of His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, to be published this September by the University of New Orleans Press.  She is also the author of two poetry collections: History of the Body, (David Robert Books, 2012) and What The Neighbors Know, (FutureCycle Press, 2014.) Her work has appeared in Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, The Massachusetts Review, Best New Poets, and numerous other journals.
The best sweet she ever had was a piña colada cake her mother made one year for her birthday, and never made again.  That cake has achieved mythic status in her memory.

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