Mariam and the Isle

by R. F. Grant

Before the life of Mariam left us, she’d held a deep interest in Ireland. Not the country necessarily, but the spiritual nature of the island. I remember this explicitly. It would hold no real significance, but on the day of her passing, just as my father departed from the hospital room, she sighed her last out-breath and her eyes metamorphosed into the truest of greens. She’d been blue-eyed her entire life.

My sister’s life came with many obstacles. On her thirteenth nameday, she described a difficult dream to me which affected her the previous night—one she couldn’t remove from her thoughts. She stood on the edge of a chalk-colored cliff somewhere on the emerald isle. Midday, a fierce wind blew, her scarlet and pine-hued kilt flapping against it. The faint echo of a flute emanated in the distance—this being the most prominent detail. Her blue eyes winced when she tried to exemplify its melody, but it never came to her. She gave up, its notes becoming lost in the howling gusts of her memory. She seemed haunted by it that day, however, even as she extinguished the thirteen candles upon her cerulean cake, those around her cheering.

Our family lived in a ranch-style home set on the plains of Missouri. It was a suburban residence, neighbors tucked alongside one another in a strangely uncomfortable way. During the nights, the coal trains would bellow hoarsely in the distance, rattling the bones of natives beneath the cold, hard earth. Mariam and I shared a room, and I remembered this sound as the last, lingering note to permeate the mind before sleep. The country setting of our childhood seduced my sister in spending a majority of time outside of herself, nothing to do otherwise. She was a dreamer familiar with her soul and its intentions from an early age, and she was fragile—a child far too prone to imagination. White as spider-silk and twisted like thunder, her hair couldn’t be tamed. Glaciers held her eyes, irises bright as starlight even on cloud-ridden days—days in which the sky seemed chiseled from steel and tempest. I always felt a toy hammer could crack her skin, as if the architect of our reality wove her from the thinnest porcelain. It failed to tan when exposed to sunlight, seemingly Nordic in heritage or albinistic. Our entire family reserved dark eyes and mahogany hair, however, and Mariam was not adopted. I often felt her life was conceived by something immaculate.

As we aged, my sister’s struggle with illness became apparent. I’m still not sure if this was due to my own increased sensitivity as I matured, or if her condition was in actual decay. Our mother and father never spoke of it. It was never a topic raised by anyone in the family, rather expressed indirectly by cutting eyes and awkward pauses at the dinner table. It always felt like an elephant in the room, a topic which bothered the conscience but never reached the lips of anyone. Our bodies were becoming more woman-like, yes, but my sister began to experience troubles while she grew. Oftentimes, she’d lock the door to the bathroom and cough blood into the toilet with the fan on high, attempting to wipe away the spots from the seat before leaving. It always left a stain if you looked hard enough. To distract us from days like these, our mother would take us thrift shopping. We went to the second-hand stores in town where dresses and other effeminate things were on sale. Mariam often chose the antique, Victorian articles—ones with rounded shoulders and tufts at the end of the cloth. Dresses with intricate patterns sewed into the material. They seemed to come from another period—just like Mariam—and she could always find them. You can imagine how eyes would loiter, especially in a country town.

By the time our graduation passed us, her physical changes only worsened. This left me uncomfortable and on edge—a thorn in my back I couldn’t pick. Her frailness exacerbated in a matter of months despite the beautiful smile she always kept. Her lips became touched by the frost of her eyes. They turned lily-white, as if the pleasant, soft-spoken words which came from them altered their once-rosy hue. She lost weight swiftly, our father questioning, in agitation, if she’d been purging. She shook her head every time. I always felt that Mariam knew her affliction despite the doctors’ naivety. That some clairvoyant knack within her saw the condition of her future. And yet, she never spoke a word of it. She never let her secret slip, for I believe she had many secrets concealed out of empathy.

By the age of nineteen, Mariam left this world. It was a period when the summer season had reached its height and our generation prospered in its youthful prime. A time when fireflies flickered against the hot night, fruit bats fluttering between the treetops. The scent of Hawthorne blossoms and lilies, daisies and fresh-cut grass filled the nostrils and clothing was light and airy, a thin film of sweat permanent on the skin. It was the great irony of Mariam, I suppose—wasting away while the world flourished, for she wasn’t of the world.

It felt like an enormous burden lifted from our shoulders when it finally happened. News of her death spread quickly. A summer of bliss to the rest of the neighboring people left my family feeling quiet. Isolated, even. Words spoken to us were brief and only faintly sympathetic. And I, somehow, felt more in denial than in grief. When the time came to cremate, we framed Mariam’s body in olive branches and spread her hair around her tiny skull like a crown of lightning. She wore an ivory dress—a dress like any other she collected in life. And when the flames licked her body and grew, they transformed her white spirit into smoke, sending her to the chortling gods above us. Even so, I felt Mariam hadn’t entirely left.

When the wind would pick up on summer nights, the trees shuddering and shedding their leaves like chartreuse tears, I would hear Mariam’s whisper among them. When night fell, the house creaking like an old man’s bones, I knew it would be her tip-toeing across the floorboards. And when the topic of her arose in dinner conversation, I knew she would be smiling in the shadows behind chairs in undisturbed rooms, listening. All of this had occurred before the sound of the flute, however. It came to me as it had her, a mere month following the ceremony.

I flirted with sleep one July afternoon, shoe-gazing the white, linen curtain covering my bedroom window. It wafted playfully with the hot breeze, filtering the light. A lullaby of sorts, a hypnotist’s watch, it pulled on my eyelids like little anchors. And then it came. Ever so slowly, its melody edged into my consciousness like a hypnagogic dream.

It was a boy—at least I thought it to be. He played a flute on the neighboring street outside, just as I began to drift into the subconscious. It felt impossible, surreal even, and I couldn’t put a finger on it. I knew exactly what my sister felt upon that archaic cliff of her dream; how possessive it was, how it became fainter the longer it played, whispering into the horizon. You wanted to name it but couldn’t. It simply felt too sacred.

I dared not lift my eyes as I began to experience it. I feared the sound might dissipate the more conscious I willingly became. I listened. There, on that neighboring street outside, the flute’s notes danced like the hooved Pan, filling the air with elation. It played for several minutes, I listening all the while. And as it did so, I began to waft into the depths of sleep, light as a feather, bed sheets cradling my perspiring body.

The song became fainter, and fainter even so. I began to see the island. Atop its foggy, rounded cliff, my sister played amongst the reeds and grey-green moss. Her eyes were green here—not blue as in life—a certain placidity never leaving her face. It was an expression I can now only compare to Krishna or the Virgin Mary. And as she played her song, it echoed further still, until its notes became only traces of an echo, blending with the wave-carrying wind. I watched her figure wane like a mirage. It disappeared into the fog—the fog of her island. I could only let her go, smiling that she had found Paradise.

I could not feel Mariam’s presence after that day. Her whisper left the rustling trees. The groaning floorboards were due to an aging house. And her spirit no longer hid in the shadows of undisturbed rooms. The trains which howled at midnight felt colder even. For several days, I yearned to revisit Mariam and her isle, but I somehow knew it was impossible. Despite all of this, I still felt she was watching, watching from some faraway place. Blue-eyed Mariam, skin like porcelain. Glacial-eyed Mariam, hair as white as wool.