The Artist and His Sister Gerti

Christine Schutt

The buckskin color of her silky throat signaled her sexual self as did a bird’s breast in its fluttering coloration; and the underside of her, under her chin, was soft, and a small excess of folded-over skin gave her, young as she was, an appearance of age and seriousness and wisdom. The stilling experience of stroking her throat and her belly as she lay in my lap amazed me when I had expected her to be excitable, restless, loudly after play and vigorous attention; I had expected she would exhaust me; instead, she shut her eyes. Her eyes, like her mouth, were darkly outlined, liquidy and sad; even her tears looked black. She seemed too full of feeling all too easily spilled. I didn’t dare to move or move her though her head was heavy against my leg, and I had begun to worry. Was she sick? The rest of her—bare belly, fleshy, stretched along the couch—was warm. No sign of fever; but then it happened, she walked to another part of the room and was sick.

“What’s the matter, darling?”

But by then—already!—she was too unwell to answer and was puzzled herself and weakened to a sigh.

I cleaned up what there was, and there wasn’t much because she had had no appetite in the days before. None, now that I thought of it, or little to speak of. I said, “I’m going to call the doctor, darling. You’re not well,” and I left her where she was, although she shortly after looked for me. I heard her light step in the hall, and she came to where I was sitting and sat next to me, then she slumped a little and again lay her head in my lap.

Those eyes! she was suffering, and I wished she would speak. What was it she felt? And why hadn’t I noticed before?

I thought of all the times I had left her alone, quite confident that she would manage; moreover, that it was good training for her to be alone: she would learn how to amuse herself. At the very least, she could sleep. No one expected her to work. She was new to the neighborhood and far too young. In time she might look after those who didn’t need much looking after, but anything more than this was beyond her reach. She was, as I have said, young, too young, I think now, to have been left at all; and yet I did leave her. Stay in your room. I’ll be back. Don’t whimper. Now she was too sick to speak.

“Bring her in,” was what they said; and so I dressed her for the cold and the wind. By then she was trembling; she was afraid; and I took her in my arms and petted her and said, “Darling, darling, you’ll be all right.” But something was happening in the city outside—a parade or a visiting dignitary—and carriages were scarce. The police were no help, although

kindly; they didn’t know how we might cross the park, and I knew we couldn’t walk, not in this cold. I felt the curses welling in me, and my throat hurt in restraint of them. “We’re in trouble here,” was what I said. “My sister is sick.”

The policeman only shrugged and said, “Sorry. There may be carriages further south of here.”

The streets changed but still no carriages. I looked at my girl and those liquidy eyes, and I wished she would curse me for making her suffer. I should have had a solution; I should have made her feel better. Darling, darling, darling. Her reproachful quiet, or that was how I thought of her quiet, as reproachful—for my incompetence, my unknowing, the thickness of my fingers—and I thought if I could only take her place because I could better withstand whatever it was that made her shiver and turn inward, snailing back to babysize as best she could. Darling. Others, passing, saw her and seemed instantly compassionate in a way, I imagined, they weren’t for anyone else, even for their dogs. Well, I might have been exaggerating, but always before she had drawn light towards her so that others drew near, admiring, and remarked on how she shone. Although no one seeing us—me wailing for a carriage—said she looked well now or bright. Now she was dulled when the two of us stood with those other sufferers at the nurse’s station. “Is she? Will she?” The clock was too far away to read—thank goodness!

Later, when she was dead, I thought how in the last few days her once-soft hair had strawed slightly, gone lackluster, turned to cat’s fur and visibly dusted, changed color; the dark oily swirl of her was nearly no more; and her eyes, too, while teared, were lightless, murky, vacant. Such decline had been inconceivable; her youth and trilling spirits, the way it seemed she wagged at the slap of mail against the door, had made a strong impression of health; so that although I asked and asked again, nagged the doctor, whose neutral prognosis went mostly unchanged, I myself did not believe she would die. Her absence was only temporary.

Temporary, yet everywhere; and my back teeth throbbed from missing her. I lost my appetite. Besides, I didn’t have the heart to cook, and my militant interest in dust declined, and I started smoking again, then lying awake at night thinking about how small she had looked, how alone in the sick room. The way she had to lie on her side with a tube in her neck. I thought of her in this position, one-eyed, and that eye sad and surprised, dim, pained, exhausted, afraid.

The doctor didn’t think I should see her. The doctor said, “You’ll upset her if you’re upset yourself.” And I was upset, so I didn’t often dare to see her; yet at home she was all I saw, the darling, on her side, alone, in a windowless space with no prospect onto anything living.

Make her well. Please!But the doctor said they couldn’t feed her by mouth; they couldn’t address her slim resources except with sugars needled in.

She had no fat! She was too thin!

I had tried to feed her, to get her to feed herself, but she had wanted only to put her head in my lap and let me muss the soft curls at her ears.

How my fingers, when I looked at them, looked fat.

I took her to the hospital on a Sunday, and by Tuesday night, she was dead. The books say the virus is deadly, a killer. It destroys the intestinal walls, which explains it—sick, blood, stink, all. All swept over her with a swiftness I have not known matched except in novels.

My life is a baggy, sentimental novel with me, the weak character, whining in the middle of it.

Our mother writes to say: No one wants to see such trespass undressed. Because of you, Ernst, she is dead.

Even before she was visibly sick, I wondered how long would she live? How long!

The blinked thought was scalding despite quickly past. It came from her soft scratching through and around the room, down the hall, circuiting the kitchen, retracing her sharp steps: this, over and over again, was what made me wonder how long? The cracked sound, as of something ground underfoot, was the ached sound she made when she chewed on food. How long then before her teeth were gone? How long before the bones disappeared and she was so much skin huffing to the floor?

My fleshiness appalls me.

I should remember whatever was good between us. How at night we lay on the long couch—hours together—her head in the wedge of my crotch. The heat of her was a comfort in the cold months, but summer forced us foot to foot so we might stay cool yet together under the blanket. Easily and almost always I was in her company and felt the quiet in my room or the living room or wherever it was we were, the quiet was the quiet of a temple, orderly and incensed, orange-red, warm. I was not thirsty or tempted to smoke but felt content in the purely present tense.

My hand, her throat.

The buckskin color of her throat, the stilling experience of stroking her throat. My best model, she hardly spoke.

Comments are closed.