Burial Suit By Hannah Lee

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Before we know what pain is, we are told to let it out. Thirty children crowd in a circle, the woman with the iron-grey hair in a chair at the centre, above us all. It is a watery winter day. Pale sunlight creeps through the classroom windows, glittering off the teardrop-shaped pendant the woman wears against her woollen jumper.

Heavy-chested, thick-legged, she towers on a scale beyond our comprehension. Her body is a monument. In the corner, under bright, chaotic friezes of stars, apples and leaping fish, is a cage containing our class pet, a guinea pig. Jade and I have held it with both hands, amazed and appalled. It is a shifting pad of ginger fur over thin, soft bones. It is a collapsible spine.

The woman with the iron-grey hair slips the necklace free, pendant trembling at the end of the chain. Shards of light spin across Jade’s freckles, the downy peaches of her cheeks. We are only nine months apart but my sister will always be ahead of me. A larger gap would have been less obvious, less keenly felt. Pull at her sleeves. Run through the dust kicked up by her heels. Jade had been the one to slide open the cage door and lift the guinea pig out, daring me to hold him.

I want you to watch my pendant closely, the woman says. It will get you in the right mood for the cure.

She swings it in a wide circle and we follow it with our eyes. I try for a little while but fall back into watching Jade instead, the slow powdery flutter of her eyelashes. Something releases at the base of my skull, and everything I am thinking and feeling circles the hole, draining down my spine.

It’s time, the woman says. Are you ready?

Aren’t we ready?

Don’t we stand and stamp and jump and roll ourselves into balls and lunge at the woman with the iron-grey hair? Don’t we all scream together at her, hot-faced? Doesn’t Jade grab my hand, squeezing my brittle fingers tight as we both howl, and in the wordless elation of it I hear don’t let go, never never never?

*

We are given three more sessions of the cure, always with the same woman, the pain surrogate. Afterwards, we start life again, unencumbered by early trauma. I squeeze my arms and legs, trying to feel the void from which the toxin was drained, but there is nothing so delicate to be found. I am sturdy – every time I take the cure, everything seems normal again in a day or two.

It seems to have more effect on Jade – always the sensitive one, the one who comes home from school on those days and dashes round and round the garden, spindly legs pumping. I wish I felt things the way she did. I wish things would have the right effect on me.

The cure taken as a child is universal and final. You do not seek it out, nor do you lose control in such a way again. That is looked at from behind curtains, spoken of in low voices. It is something like wetting the bed.

*

I would never, he says. Not on my life. That’s dirty. I got all that stuff out at the proper time.

Years later, my sister gone, I am sitting in a fancy restaurant trying to impress a man. He has brought up the topic, one I would prefer to steer well clear of, himself. I have experienced this often; the men think they are being bold and socially progressive, running a finger along the sharp edge of taboo. Then, after a while, they tell me just how much they don’t need a pain surrogate, how they would never visit one. Always an edge of pity in their voice for the nameless ones who do.

Unlicensed surrogates do good business, I say.

Lewis is eating a fancy burger. It oozes pink juice from between two black buns. When he ordered it, I tried to joke a little – no food poisoning when you serve briquettes instead, something like that. He looked at me, unamused. Charcoal is good for digestion, he said, you should try it.

Indeed it is, sir, said the waiter, bent obsequiously over his shoulder. I ordered pasta. Now, Lewis smiles at me with black teeth.

There are always people who aren’t so strong, or who are stuck somewhere developmentally, he says. We can’t stop them taking the cure when they shouldn’t. That’s their choice – to be reckless, to go round pain which should have gone away

I smile, shoulders and back aching from the effort of holding myself perfectly straight. My first-date dress is beautiful but silk clings, and while this is desirable for my breasts if I slouch he will see the unsightly hump of my belly.

Lewis takes my hand, thumb stroking the laddered tendons. Even that small movement carries with it the promise of strength, of weight.

You shouldn’t worry about things like that, he says. You’re beautiful. I’m in awe.

I try to remember what to do with my hands, hair, lips. When we were twelve or thirteen, Jade and I sat in the garden and she told me what to do and how to do it, passing the knowledge down. Another way in which my sister was ahead of me. Lewis leans across the table, puckering stained lips, and I wish I could ask Jade for help.

In the end, I give in to it. After all, the light is low, the restaurant romantic, and there is wine. In a few weeks, I am installed in Lewis’ flat like a new kind of kitchen appliance, and my life is like this now.

*

Every morning, Lewis dresses in shirt and tie and takes the lift thirty floors, rising up the endless pipe of a glass-sided skyscraper. The city lies poured out for him – the dead stacks of the factory chimneys, the river winding brown and placid, a hiatus. Out on the old docks, there are bars, warm and inviting, and sometimes Lewis goes there instead of coming back to the flat. The first night, he tells me not to wait up. After the second or third, I believe him.

Lewis helps me move out of my parents’ house. His friend comes with a van and we strip my childhood bedroom, putting the things I will have no use for in bin bags. My mother watches, exclaiming, hand on heart, about the treasures I am discarding. She offers the men bottles of beer and they drink, throats pulsing. My father wanders once across the living room in his ratty old dressing gown, not knowing who any of us are. When Lewis puts a hand out, Dad takes it vaguely, turns it over. Up the Reds, he says.

My job is three days a week at a primary school, administrative work. An endless wave of children ebbs and flows around me. I can always tell which classes are taking the cure – for a few days afterwards, the children are blissed-out, quietly floating. I am on friendly terms with the official pain surrogate – Miss Jo, the children call her. She is plump, motherly. I sign her into the building, print her a temporary access card.

I do not tell Lewis about Jade.

Sometimes, when I am alone, I open her website on my laptop, ignoring the list of times, prices and testimonials to watch her eyes, bluish and hazy, fill my screen. The banner photo is high-res – I can count her eyelashes, trace the slight droop of her left eyelid.

What could I tell Lewis, anyway? His is an airy and assured existence. He does not look at graffiti as I do while I walk back from the school, so he does not see smoke a bowl with riz or Jack has small pp or, painted neatly in white on a wall scabbed with layers of posters, Call Jess to Take the Cure. And then a phone number.

She does not call herself Jade any more. She has shed that name, wriggling free of its tight cocoon with unsettling dexterity.

*

For a while, Jade lived in a nice flat, a new build in the city centre. I hoped she had found someone to take her in, someone with such a deep well of pain they had to draw from it regularly. Someone my sister could mine for cash.

Our mother has closed her eyes to Jade. She whispers about her as if she is dancing somewhere with tasselled nipples, a dental-floss thong. After so many years, I am the bright-faced daughter – a nice flat, a job, a man – and my sister is my dark counterpart, a giddying cosmic coin-flip.

I remember that Christmas, the last time any of us spoke to Jade. The house was warm and humid, festooned with wreaths, paper snowflakes, poinsettia flowers. We pulled out the strut under the dining table, but then the tablecloth was too small. We’ll sit your father there, my mother said. He won’t know the difference anyway. Pink, hairy fists wound round the good silver, Dad sat hunched over his plate, a hulking Father Christmas with a red party hat slipping down over his forehead. When Jade and I were growing up, he never once shouted at us. He had that tight a rein on himself. Instead, he helped us make balls of seeds and suet, which we hung from the bird table. Jade’s hands were cleverer than mine. Still, he helped her more.

Jade sat in her old chair, and we made light small talk. She stared at us from behind a glass of champagne, cheeks flushed, voice louder than usual. I could not talk about my job at the school because then Jade would also talk about work, that was only fair.

Have a slice of gammon, Mum said.

Thanks. Jade took it and cut off a tiny bite.

Some potatoes? Carrots? Pigs in blankets?

I’m fine, said Jade.

I loaded my plate with the food Jade did not want, poured gravy over everything.

It’s nice that you’re watching your weight, said Mum, but is Christmas really the time, do you think?

My sister opened her mouth to reply, but Dad threw down his fork suddenly. Argh! Grah! He said, looking knowingly at us all. The shutters went down behind Jade’s eyes and she sawed off another piece of ham.

Mum fussed over Dad, putting the fork back in his hand, spreading a napkin over his knees.

Jade said, Shouldn’t he be in a home or something?

The combination of her husband and older daughter was Mum’s Achilles’ heel. I never saw her angry but for that shameful mix. He’s your father, she said. Have some compassion. You’ve already had your pound of flesh, your little retribution.

I had almost cleared my plate. No one noticed. We had fallen back into a familiar groove, Jade the centre of attention through silence, sighs or amorphous storms of tears; Mum in defence mode, a plucky, ruffled bantam. Dad’s illness made him unable to defend himself and Mum seized the chance to perform this service for him whenever possible, drowning him in a long-dammed river of love.

I was not included in this reckoning – I never was. Jade stopped counting me long ago, and Mum never did, not when it mattered.

This – Jade gestured, meaning Dad, but the sweep of her arm encompassed the bright room, the table and everyone sitting at it – is nothing to do with me. Why am I the problem here, after what he did?

Mum recovered her composure enough to smile tautly, hands twisting in her lap. Oh Jade. Are you sure you’re all right? Splashing around in strangers’ pain all day, I don’t know – must do funny things to your thinking.

His mind’s holed like swiss cheese because of all the thoughts he tried to smother. They got through in the end, said Jade. She pushed back her chair, half-stood, but Dad thumped his fists on the table.  Sometimes he did this. He couldn’t remember what he had for dinner but he would talk on lucidly about things that had happened thirty or forty years ago.

He began to speak, low-voiced and urgent.

It was a lorry bomb. I never saw it go off, it was in the city centre and we were in the suburbs. We just heard a noise we’d never heard before, never even imagined. Everyone ran out of their houses and into the street. There was nothing to see, of course, not even a column of smoke. Just that awful sound. We stood around for a while then, slowly, we walked back inside. Our Donald saw the aftermath, though. He was a glazier and they called him in to do all the plate-glass windows – the bank and Woolworths’. He said the stores’ shutters had rolled all the way up like the tops of sardine tins.

Once he was done, he sniffed loudly, hawked phlegm. Jade stared. Then she said, I think it’s time I left.

I did not stop her. Closed up in my childhood bedroom, the tight chamber of a nautilus, I guarded my fragile, new status. The rightness of one sister depended on the wrongness of the other. I have always had a well-developed survival instinct.

My sister’s face, cool and clean, smoothed over like a river pebble. The Chinese used to cut jade into small pieces and sew them together with wire or red silk, wrapping it around the torso or limbs of a corpse. They put almond-shaped plaques over the eyes, polished to a sheen. Burial suits. Our mother did not try to stop Jade as she shrugged her coat on. Keep in touch, she said brightly, though she knew it was no use. I stood beside her, dutifully laid a hand on her shoulder.

Sometimes, I like to rifle through my wardrobe, running my hands over tweed or velvet or the cold green silk of my first-date dress. When I feel it against my body, it could be made of stone.

*

Our parents once took us to the fenlands down south. We had a mobile home that we hitched to the car and in it we wandered across the nape of the country, down its odd ribs. The fens lay spread out in front of us in the early evening, a yawning pocket of sky pierced by bulrushes, and I remember the bat like struggle of the tent, the blue flame glowing underneath the Primus.

Jade and I wandered a little way along the shore. Five minutes or so away from our camp, we saw the heron. It stood on the branch of a drowned tree, as precisely italic as calligraphy, but there was something wrong with its head, some malformation. We looked closer and saw that the heron had a plump, wriggling frog in its mouth.

Herons usually stab their prey with their beaks, killing them quickly, but this frog was somehow still alive and fighting. It made swimming motions in the air, kicking its back legs, the heron’s beak clamped tightly around its belly. The heron jerked its head back and forth. It tipped its head back, tossing the frog in the air so its whole head and belly were lodged down the heron’s throat. We could see the frog’s head moving against the heron’s concertinaed neck, the jerking, insistent muscles. Its webbed feet kicked as they were swallowed.

This scene, set against the quiet fens, the long shadows, frightened me. I moved towards Jade, tried to hold her hand, but she shrugged me off hard. We stood beside each other. I thought she wanted to speak, but the wind rushed past and took the words.

After a while, we started to walk back to camp.

*

Losing Jade began with the fens, ended with that poinsettia-laced Christmas table. Soon after that Christmas, my life splits into pre- and post-Lewis, a lesser crack running perpendicular to the essential schism. I remember less and less that post-Lewis is also post-Jade. I do not reach out. My family are a threat to my new, varnished existence.

When I’m alone at home, I crumple up newspaper and set it alight in the kitchen sink. I lean, way, way over the balcony. Sometimes, I eat salt by the handful.

*

Morning in the city, sky and pavements pewter, last night’s rain soaked in. I pass under tram-wires, stepping carefully over the tracks. Beside the road, they are hacking off overgrowth. I walk past the workers, through the smell of green sap and gasoline.

A group of men approaches, strung across the pavement, still holding last night’s beer cans, transformed into this morning’s. They are talking loudly among themselves, snatches of song tunelessly shouted. The instant they see me, a shiver goes through them all. They slow down. I will have to pass through them to continue.

I step across the line, breaking it. This is the signal they have been waiting for, and they follow, open-handing their words to each other over my head.

Would you look at that

Oh my god, would you look at those –

Lips, I mean whooo-eeeee!

Wouldn’t you like to see them –  

Hey sweetheart, why don’t you

Even when they address me, they are not really talking to me. None of them touches me, secure in their knowledge that I must watch them as they elbow and josh each other, that all I will do is murmur excuse me and walk on until they tire. Clutching my coat around my body, I walk faster, stumbling. Laughter uproarious, they choose to leave me behind.

At home, Lewis makes me a peppermint tea. I cling to him. He holds me while I cry and as I come out of it I become aware of the taut bellow of his ribcage, the scrabble of his hands in my hair. As soon as I have stopped, he nudges me off to the side, slings a hand onto my knee.

In the past, the vulnerability of my crying has excited him. Now, he passes that hand up my thigh, higher, fingers curling round. They’re only jealous, he says. They want what they can’t have.

In the days afterwards, I devise games and dare myself to play. Head bent back over the top slat of a chair, I hold my breath, imagining it weighing down my lungs like stones. I stick my legs through the balcony railings, paddle my hands through the glazed ice in the freezer. I think of ground glass, of arsenic, of morphine. Light comes through the French windows and I remember the teardrop-shaped pendant of our pain surrogate, how we stared at it and lost everything, finding ourselves again briefly through an Armageddon of noise and motion.

There is a number on Jade’s (Jess’) website. I save it in my phone, but never dial.

Lewis can see the difference in me. He tries, lavishing praise on soap-streaked windows and cakes that fall in the middle, but I can see something building in him – his movements more and more tightly controlled, a vein pulsing in his temple. He leaves work for the bars more and more often and comes back weaving, whisky-smoothed. The hangovers are brutal.

Never, he had said. I would never. And so this builds in him, unacknowledged.

There comes a day when I cannot stand it anymore, and I tell him everything. About Jade – who she was, who she is now, and why.

Lewis lets me finish speaking. He does not raise his voice or move his body in a less than gentle way. He leads me outside, and I allow myself to be led. I hear the click of the lock as he shuts the door behind me.

*

I place my hands flat on the closed door, feeling Lewis waiting inside like a beating heart. Confused, gasping with cold, I try a gentle knock – let me in sir, please. I stare at my hand as it knocks again, louder this time, and suddenly I am weakly pummelling the door, tentatively raising my voice. Hey! Maybe you should go see my sister – you need it!

Lewis does not visit surrogates, though if he did, I now know the type of customer he would be. The man who goes for the young, pretty girls, the kind of man who walks into a strip club with the assurance that his two sharpest needs are soon to be fulfilled. This is because a lot of dancers do a little pain work on the side, which is just smart business.

These clients often want their surrogates in underwear, or naked. Whether at the centre of a pain circle or twisting on a lap like leaping fish – the same bodies, inspiring many of the same thoughts.

A light comes on in the neighbouring unit, clicks off again. No one is willing to intervene with what I have become, the spectre of a hysterical woman. Lewis does not come to the door. I can picture him, bound up and congratulatory in his self-control, pouring himself a well-earned drink.

My anger is uncertain, sputtering as if through a faulty circuit. Unmanageable, it must be harnessed. I think about climbing one of the bare trees, swan-diving to the pavement. All those times I stuck my hands in the freezer, packing ice crystals down my shirt, into my bra. The air, blue with thirty children’s screams. I think of Jade in her black hoodie, saying It’s not enough. It will never be enough.

When Jade answers the phone, she begins a rehearsed spiel, but when she hears my voice she says, No.

I just want to talk.

She laughs. Mum’s claws have breached holes in you so big I can see daylight. This is my livelihood, Ruby. I’m not going to give it up.

I weep into the phone, numb hands closing as if trying to grab the slippery tails of my words. It’s too wide, too deep, I’ll drown, I say.

Inside the heron’s throat, the frog’s head moved from side to side with dreadful purpose, swelling the delicate feathers. Jade is silent for a while. Then I hear a faint crackle of static. The sound of her breath.

*

The day Jade came to speak to us in the kitchen, everything was held in the muffled amber of late afternoon. I stirred the mess of cherries and sugar on the stove, while Mum slapped shortcrust on the counter, rolled it, turned it. Jade was off with Dad somewhere, and I resented her for it. Mum made me her default favourite, but it was not the same. She assigned me kitchen tasks, often irritably. The two people we would have rather been with were with each other, and we were stuck.

Outside, birds fluttered around the bird-table. I stared at the iridescent breast of a starling as Jade spoke. She said she was sorry to be a bother but she had to let it out, it was gnawing away inside of her. There were times, she told us, when Dad looked at her not in the way a father looks at a daughter but more like a man looks at his wife. He had, said Jade, done more than look. He had kissed her on the mouth, there by the bird-table. One time, but one time only.

Mum pummelled the pastry silently. Then, she said, What do you want to go worrying me like that for? Making trouble?

*

We are seventeen years old. I enter the hallway where Jade is leaning against the wall wearing a black hoodie and black jeans. I did not hear her come in – Jade passes through shadows like a skittish animal. When she sees me, she automatically hunches, locking me out with the ease of practice. It has been like this for years but something is different today.

What are you doing? I ask. Jade says nothing. I look past her into the living room. Three of her friends, also dressed in black – to give the occasion the appropriate solemnity? – are standing around a chair in the middle of the floor. Our father is sitting in it, dishevelled, knuckles white.

Jade finally says, Want to join in? I know what this is, what is about to happen. Her face is clenched like a fist. I back away, heading for the stairs. He never did anything to me, I say. Besides, this could be dangerous. We’ve already taken the cure.

My stammering does not seem to register. It’s not enough, says Jade. It will never be enough. She puts her hood up and steps through to the living room.

I do not know what to do, so I go upstairs and let it all go ahead without me.

The beginnings of Dad’s illness come a year or so later, long after Jade has moved out to sleep on the couch of one of her serious-faced friends. We find him standing outside on cold mornings, trailing his fingers through the water in the birdbath. We struggle to understand the frayed threads of his speech. Mum, who finally has what she wanted her entire marriage, coddles him, becomes his mouthpiece. I might as well be painted on the wall, but at least I am not Jade. She has shown herself to be dangerous and therefore can no longer be trusted.

I wonder what they did to him, how they forced him to take her pain. Was that the source of his illness? Or maybe it was as Jade said and all the bad thoughts he had were squirming to the surface like worms after rain, to wriggle and flop. Whatever it was, somewhere between my father’s ears some thin, indefinable membrane had finally torn, and there was no fixing it.

*

Jade’s flat is small, a studio. She holds open the door for me wordlessly. Smoke dribbles slowly from an incense burner in the corner and there is a thick smell everywhere. Small sounds come from the wind chime hanging by the window. The bed has been folded away and there is a chair standing by itself in the middle of the floor.

I step inside, noticing as I do that my sister has changed – she is gourd-shaped, cheeks full where they once were hollow. She follows me with her eyes: I am an intrusion into the small and orderly world she has made for herself.

Taking up almost all of one wall is a cloth wall hanging, depicting an Indian god in fierce colours. Blue-skinned, he dances with fire beneath his feet and the sun at his back, a striking cobra coiled round his neck. The figure is enclosed in a golden circle – a wheel turning, a mirror looking into emptiness. Looking at the god’s face is dizzying. There is something fearsome about Jade’s apartment – the overwhelming incense smell, the woman who is not quite my sister standing in front of me.

Her face says, what do you want? And make it good.

I don’t have the words. Instead, I cross to the lone chair and sit down. I use the words of the woman with the iron-grey hair.

Are you ready?

Jade kneels in front of me, hands on the arms of the chair. She stays like this for a moment.

Then – throats working, lungs filled tight – an enormous, forbidden noise bursts from us both. Finally I feel it, an emptying, like the marrow is being scooped from my bones. Together, we ride the great wave of the cure.

After it is over, we stare at each other from behind curtains of dark hair. Slowly, I lift a hand to cover one of Jade’s. We sit like this for a while, and then we begin to talk.

glasses

Hannah Lee

Singaporean-British writer Hannah is a recent transplant to rainy Manchester, having spent the first twenty-four years of her life south of the Equator. She left Singapore to pursue a degree in Archaeology and now holds a Master’s in the study of human bones and burial customs, which she has put to good use on excavations in the UK and Greece. Hannah writes in the morning and evening, around her full-time job at a Students’ Union. Her short stories are forthcoming in Eunoia Review and Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, and she is currently studying creative writing with The International Writers’ Collective.

Twitter: @jing_wennn, https://twitter.com/jing_wennn
Instagram: @jing_wennnnnn, https://www.instagram.com/jing_wennnnnn/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-lee-029b30194/

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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