When I was younger I didn’t know a thing about death. I thought it meant stillness, a body gone limp. A marionette with its strings cut. Death was like a long vacation – a going away.
When I was younger, I used to play dead.
That was back before I knew what dead meant—what it really meant. But when you’re a kid you play at things you don’t understand. You play doctor. You play house. At ten I didn’t know a thing about death. I thought it meant stillness, a body gone limp. A marionette with its strings cut. Death was like a long vacation—a going away.
Mom was pregnant with Kira when my golden retriever Knick-Knack got hit by a Buick speeding down Dupont Street. I was six years old, in first grade, still getting used to whole days away from home. Afterward Mom said it was lucky it happened on a school day, lucky I wasn’t around.
Lucky, she said, but it wasn’t. Knick-Knack was my responsibility. There had been long talks before we got him, Dad on his knees, eye-level, saying: “I know you want him, Feef, but he’s a living thing. You’re going to have to take care of him.” And so for two months I had walked Knick-Knack around the block, Mom holding my hand, me holding the leash. I brushed his coat, wiped thick black gunk from his eyes, and slid my hand into the silky white curls that covered his belly. I let him slink onto my bed, his head low, when the crash of thunder left him shaking.
But even when Mom sat me down at the kitchen table with a glass of water to tell me what had happened, her round belly pressing against her cotton dress and me in my green Havergal jacket and tie, knee-high socks rolled down to my ankles because it was a warm September and my legs got so itchy in the heat, I still didn’t really understand. What it meant for something to die. Dad never cried much, and the day Knick-Knack died, he was true to form, no waterworks. He’s a tough guy, Dad is, poker-faced. But he kept rubbing his sleeve against his chin. His gaze wandered toward the half-empty dog bowl, the leash hanging from a hook next to the door. I don’t know if he hugged me—maybe he did.
By the time I was older, I understood more of the way the world worked, but it still wasn’t real dead I was playing at. It was something else. Something mysterious and deliciously terrifying. Like kissing a boy for the first time.
This is what I remember about the last time I played: late summer, the morning thick with humidity. A storm was coming and the air had that eerie electrical charge that made the hairs on the back of your arm stand up. Murky blue light streamed through the filter of my curtain.
The house on Dupont was old but gorgeous, a beautiful, nineteenth-century bay-and-gable with two and a half stories of red brick. A bedroom each for Kira and me, mine in the attic where the steep roof came to a point above me. Skeleton beams all musty and sweet-smelling.
I pulled up the covers snugly around my neck, halfway in and out of sleep. The grandfather clock chimed from downstairs. Bong, bong, bong. Back then the chiming was a part of what it meant to be home. I loved listening to it in the morning. Counting out the hours until everyone else came awake, thumbing through the parcel of books Aunt Irene had sent me from England where she was a professor. The Ladybird Book of British History, all those complicated family squabbles spilling into death, the rise and fall of the nation. A complete set of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, which must have come from a used bookstore because some other girl had scrawled her name on the inside covers. I loved those stories for their strangeness. They offered a vision of somewhere else, the past opening up like a fairy tale, filled with wondrous happenings, signs and portents.
But that morning I wasn’t reading. My eyes were shut, my breath shallow. Outside the window grackles and robins and chickadees hummed above the traffic sounds of the Annex waking up. They felt so close, like they were nesting in the attic with me. The air was full of light, movement, the anticipation of things to come.
And then I heard Kira, three years old, toddling on her pudgy legs. She opened my bedroom door a crack. “You asleep, Soff?” she asked. I didn’t answer, not right away. I listened to her feet padding across the carpet, waited to feel her finger hovering right above my forehead. And then, like a butterfly landing, the nail scraping gently between my eyebrows.
“No, Kiki, I’m playing dead.”
Kira was seven years younger than me, Mom and Dad’s darling—their stopgap measure against a divorce that loomed on the horizon even back then. Kira didn’t fix things but she bought us all time together. Time for me to grow up. It wasn’t Kira’s fault that she couldn’t build a bridge between my parents. She was beloved regardless.
I felt the bedsprings give way as she climbed up and slid her feet beneath the covers. She curled into me and whispered into my ears so that the little hairs moved: “I gonna play dead too, Soff.”
I couldn’t help smiling, my lips twitching though they weren’t supposed to. Kira’s hair was a cloud of velvety down against my cheek. She smelled of milk and soap. She snuggled up, warm like a hot water bottle, and placed her ear against my ribcage. I tried to slow my breathing but I knew my heart was still beating a loud thumpa-thumpa-thumpa.
“Soff, am I dead?”
“No, Kiki-bird, the dead don’t talk.”
“Because they can’t breathe anymore. You need air to talk.”
“Oh.” She thought. “Like fish?”
“Not like fish.”
“Last night, Soff, um, I was an octopus. We were underwater and everything was blue. You were a fish, and Daddy was a fish, but I didn’t eat any of you.” She brought her palms up to her face to hide her giggles.
“I’m glad you didn’t eat us.”
“I wouldn’t eat you!”
Her knees tucked into my side. Her toenails touching my thigh through the thin fabric of the pyjamas. “What’s being dead like?” she asked me.
“I don’t really know, Kiki.”
“I play too,” she whispered.
And we lay together, side by side. My breath went in and her head rose gently. It was the first time I let Kira play dead with me, and somehow it made things different. I’d been imagining a kind of passage, crawling through darkness into a very bright light where everything was new and beautiful. But with Kira beside me all I could think of was Knick-knack’s empty bowl, the hole in our lives he had left behind.
I remember how Kira looked that morning. Her long eyelashes and her clear blue eyes hovering on the edge of gray. A smattering of freckles around her nose. Her face so like my own, but smaller, rounded in baby fat. I didn’t want her to play dead with me.
“Everything born will pass away,” Mom had told me when Knick-Knack died. “Sometimes it’s sad, and sometimes it’s scary but that’s just the way the world works.” It frightened me to think that everything I knew would one day be gone. I didn’t want to see Kira as still as that so I ran my fingers over the ticklish bit of her tummy until she squirmed. “Read me a story, Soff,” she begged when I finally let her go.
I miss the house in Toronto. I miss how my life was before everything changed.
Last August—just before the start of my senior year—Kira caught the chickenpox. Half her friends had it but she was the only one left dizzy. The light from the window bothered her. Her hands shook when she tried to turn the page of her book. A week later she collapsed.
The doctor at the intensive care unit said she’d had an episode—that was what he called it. He was handsome in a craggy-faced way, the hair at his temples threaded with gray. In a calm voice he told us her immune system had gone into overdrive and was attacking her brain. Kira stayed in the hospital for weeks. After they released her she was prone to bursts of temper, violent fits. She would start to cry for no reason.
There were more tests. Protein electrophoresis. Something to do with her cerebrospinal fluid. They didn’t know what the results meant. Then two of her friends developed the same symptoms. The school year resumed with a strange air of dread and quiet, everyone glassy-eyed, some wearing facemasks, others wiping their hands again and again with anti-microbial gels.
Mrs. Burnett told me in one of the counseling sessions Mom recommended that sometimes a stressful event can bring a family together. The shock jolts you out of bad patterns. But it hasn’t been like that for us. When Mom said we were going to live with Aunt Irene for a while in Oxford where there were better doctors, I knew Dad wouldn’t be coming. They both said it was temporary but I guessed that was only for Kira’s sake. Mom had always been there for us while Dad was away at the office. He had been more of a spectator to our lives. I’m not surprised he couldn’t take it.
Lately I’ve been telling myself stories about our life in Toronto, trying to fix my memories in place. It’s not easy though. Memory is a tricky thing. It isn’t a ruler, a hard, straight line for measuring the past, the passage of days, months, years. Memory doesn’t work the way my old grade school history books do. It isn’t neat and tidy. It’s more like murmurs, voices whispering in the darkness. Aunt Irene told me that was how the monks used to remember things. They would whisper the words to themselves over and over again, fixing images, sentences, whole histories in their minds so they wouldn’t be forgotten. Memor. Murmure. The meanings of the words are intertwined.
A long time ago I used to play dead. Back then I wanted to keep death near me, to imagine what it might be like. Not Death with the robes black as midnight carrying a mirror-bright scythe. Not the death in monster stories, a hand that grabs you in the night. But the feeling of rest after a long journey.
But ever since Kira got sick I’ve been thinking about things differently. Death is a doorway and I don’t want to know what’s on the other side.
The Migration by Helen Marshall publishes 5 March 2019 in paperback from Titan Books. Get all the latest sci-fi news with every issue of SciFiNow.