Arlene and Esme
By Emily Berry
In our house we live with Arlene. My little sister has a plan.
She has what they call a beginner’s mind. She sees everything
from an un-given-up perspective. I’m frightened; I know
Arlene better than anyone; she knows me better. Esme says
if I’m scared we can’t win. But I am scared. Arlene drags me
over to the window where the black mould has made
a map of Australia. Australia gives me trouble breathing,
it’s so far away. Arlene points it out and I get the feeling
in my chest, my whole life in there twisted up like a snake.
It could bite me or her. She puts a hand on my breastbone.
You’re not strong. I want to tell her we can look after ourselves.
I want to tell her I’m in charge now, but I can still see the dark
blur at the edges. I don’t sleep anymore, my head is full
of this insomniac light. I lie awake watching over my sisters
and I listen to them breathe. Esme whispers that I should
wake her if I need to. I say I will, but I never do. Even when
I sleep I dream I can’t sleep and I’m standing there looking
down at them, the night pouring from my hands. Esme has
a future in mind. She’s always laughing. She gets up early
and makes buttermilk pancakes using normal milk soured
with lemon juice. She tries things out. Arlene tells us
to stay away from sharp things or we’ll cut ourselves. Esme
does what she likes. She grates apple for a new recipe and
cuts her knuckle and laughs. I don’t know if I can live my life.
I don’t know if I can look after someone as unafraid as Esme.
I don’t know how to change what I do, the way someone
eating soup will, out of habit, bite down. Esme laughs; she’s
serving up apple pancakes with banana and maple syrup
and she says, You are a whole person. A row of mornings fan out.
And the pancakes are sweet and slightly gummy with a salt edge.