“Cecille and her Sister” by Maya Surya Pillay
It is a hand, beckoning from the ground, a beacon against the red soil. A lighthouse, outlined against the hot blue of the lake. There’s no mistaking it.
Shivering, Cecille takes a halting step forward; and then her heart drops, and she turns and bolts, spilling water from her pail.
She says nothing to Maman. They sit in silence in the kitchen, eating bitter fried herbs.
“What’s the matter with you?” Maman demands eventually.
“Nothing,” Cecille says tearfully, and crams her mouth with bread.
The next day, Cecille and Maman are in Bonne-Luc’s store, buying dried sea-fish, when she catches the movement and looks up. It’s swaying a little to catch her attention: hand and arm, together, dangling between the bunches of thyme that are hung drying. Perfectly formed, with chewed fingernails, the dark skin brittle in places with eczema. Like some great insect on the point of flight.
“Cecille!” Maman snaps.
“Sorry!” she says quickly, and claps her own hand over her mouth.
Maman prays five times a day, with incense from the cupboard Cecille may not touch. After Terce, Maman likes to sit in her rocking-chair on the back porch; just sit, looking out over the sand, with its shimmer that reminds Cecille of a buzzing guitar string, and the little writhings of sand where the lizards move.
So Cecille waits beside the shrine, and listens for the chair’s creak before she gets the charm out of the cold-room.
The honey forms stiff golden trails in the milk, and the bread is disintegrating, but at least it’s cold; the cold is what makes the spirits listen. Cecille sets the bowl down a few steps in front of the house, and squats, closing her eyes.
“Aceline,” she says, “I really am sorry. B-but you know – it’s not my fault or Maman’s that you, um, g-got sick. . .and I do miss you, but please, you can’t–”
The blow takes her by surprise. Cecille lands hard, hitting the side of her head. Maman kicks the bowl and the milk vanishes into the dust.
“What are you doing?” Her voice is guttural. “What is this? Witching? You filthy girl–”
Cecille’s sobs drown her out.
She tells Maman about it, trembling, watching the rage build in her eyes.
“She always was stubborn,” Maman says at last. “But this – this is too much.”
Cecille is thinking about the days Aceline spent lying in the prayer-room, raving, legs crimson and splayed, bleeding through sheets. Sickness.
“Not a word.”
As if there’s anyone to tell. Maman walks to the village to place a call to the coast, and Cecille watches Aceline’s blistered bare feet, protruding from under the porch, kicking idly.
The Cathédrale-Engloutie tells Maman that an Inspector will be dispatched in a week; he’ll take two days to arrive. Maman relates this like a threat, daring Cecille to sigh. She does not.
But Aceline is being cruel – waving frantically from the lake when Cecille washes clothes, and standing her legs on either side of the table so Cecille loses her appetite, and shoving her bare breasts and arms through the walls so Cecille hides her face. She knows Maman notices it too – sees her lips tighten when Aceline’s bright, blood-shot eyes peer in from each of the twelve stars incised in the window-shutters. But she doesn’t acknowledge it.
So Cecille doesn’t mention the limbs, or the faint breathless cries that mingle with the cicada-song in the evenings, or the thick rings of scabs that have formed on Maman’s arms. She holds her tongue.
The night before the Inspector is due, she wakes to Aceline’s voice.
“Cecille! Up! Get up! Let’s go!”
“What?” Cecille whimpers into the dark.
“You’ve got to leave!” Aceline snarls. “I’ve got you, stupid. When that Inspector comes it’s you he’ll find. He’ll drag you off to the Cathédrale. Move!”
“Where are you?” Cecille sits upright, skin crawling.
“Light a candle,” Aceline says. “Look in the mirror. I’ve got you, you bitch.”
She does, and she does, and when she opens her mouth to speak she sees another mouth in the glass, set into the red back of her throat; this mouth has whiter teeth, and a paler tongue, and is very wet. Cecille retches violently. The fluid that comes up is dark and dotted with bits of plant.
Aceline hisses, “Don’t ignore me, sister.”
“You’re dead,” Cecille sobs. “Y-you got sick and died, Aceline. Don’t do this to me.”
“Sick?” Aceline hoots. “Sick? Do you know what kind of medicine Maman keeps in that cupboard? Cecille, she hurt me!”
She leaves before the sky starts to pale, when the air is still sweet and damp. Aceline’s voice is muffled by Cecille’s layers of teeth and lip, but Cecille hears her mutter, “Get a move on.”
But Cecille can’t help it. She pokes her head around the door beside hers, and sees Maman curled in bed, her face smooth and young in the half-light. Aceline’s sharp-nailed hands – five or six of them – retreat hastily beneath the bed.
“Stop it,” Cecille whispers. There are new stains on her mother’s arms.
“That’s hard,” Aceline says. “They’ve got a mind of their own, you know. But if you just put a bit of distance between us and that bitch, I’ll make ’em stop, promise.”
Cecille hoists her bag on her shoulders, feels her way to the back door, stands on the porch and peers into the night. The town looks like a single structure, with tiny shining squares cut out where lights have been left on. Cecille clutches her own throat and tells herself she will only be gone the night, but she knows that isn’t true.
About the Author
Maya Surya Pillay was born in 1997 in a small city on the South African coast. She is currently a high school student, living with her parents and little sister. Her hobbies include competitive glaring, arguing, pontificating, creepy breathing, steam-rollering, leering, condescending, loud screaming, chest-beating, vicarious living, and quiet weeping. You can find her at www.echolalalalia.tumblr.com.
Read our interview with Maya in the New Author Spotlight!