Three and a Half Deaths by Emma Donoghue features an accident, a suicide, an act of criminal negligence . . . and a near-death experience. These stories – set in France, the USA and Canada – bring together calamities from two centuries. The third story from the collection, ‘Sissy’, explores culpability – the survivor’s guilt of the sister of a small child who died in the 1840s in London, Ontario – because the story of any death must include its lingering effects on the living. Although Emma often writes about the famous, she has a particular interest in the obscure: people whose trace on the historical record is faint, taking the form of a footnote, or a handful of mutely eloquent bones.
I called her Sissy, though that wasn’t her real name. She was no more than two years old but she could run like the devil. She got her legs from Pa. He ran a race once against a dry-goods salesman up from Boston, beat him by a length and won Ma a length of printed calico. She made herself a Sunday suit of it. Then dyed it dirty black for Sissy’s burial.
I remember. It was spring, the geese were flying back from the south and the river was thick with melt. Our cabin was on a narrow lot at King and Talbot, just a little east of the river forks. Sissy was two and I was seven. Seven take off two is five. Five years between us and she seemed to me like a thorn in my foot, a bit of goldenrod fuzz in my eye. I was meant to be minding her that day. ‘Keep her away from the river forks,’ Ma always said. Sissy was grating on my nerves, she kept singing a snatch from an old song of Pa’s: Oh, sister, my sister, where are you going? Not that Sissy could sing yet, really, since she was only two; she just chanted the words. It was March, and the river was lumpy with ice. You could see people’s dirt floating by; you could smell it, even, through the dark stinks of the foundry and the tannery. I was seven, that’s the age of reason. That means I should have known.
Oh, sister, my sister.
I just turned my back for a minute to play hopscotch with some other girls. I can’t remember their names now, isn’t that strange? I liked them so much when I was seven years old. I just turned away for a minute and Sissy must have run straight for the forks even though she’d been told and told. Maybe that’s why she did it, because she’d been told. She maybe thought the fork in the river was something wonderful, forbidden, better than maple sugar.
‘Ma,’ I said afterwards, ‘Sissy just run off, I never saw her.’ I said, ‘I was watching all the time but she gave me the slip, she run off fast as a dog, Ma, I didn’t know where. You know how Sissy can run.’ Ma never said a word of blame. She didn’t need to.
Pa didn’t find Sissy for two days. She was three miles down the river. Pa’s face was wet when he carried her in on his shoulder, but Ma had stopped weeping by then. Sissy was all blue and swollen as if she’d been drinking the river.
Pa made her a coffin. Boughten ones cost too much, and besides, there was a shortage because children were always dying in springtime. He took three days to make it. It was a handsome six-sided casket, just the right size for Sissy, with a narrowing at her head and her toes. Pa chose long nails for a better grip. He smoothed and polished the wood inside and out. Ma kept saying, ‘You’ve got to sleep,’ but I didn’t see her sleeping either. I didn’t say a word for three days, I just watched.
Oh, sister, my sister, where have you gone?
Mostly when people died they got buried in the cemetery, but after paying for the planks and nails, Ma and Pa didn’t have the money for the minister. So Ma said, ‘Put her behind the cabin in that little knot of cedars, then she’ll always be near enough to pay a call.’
I chewed on my lip, and thought of Sissy paying us a call.
‘I don’t know that it’s proper,’ said Pa. ‘What if someone wants to build a cabin there?’
‘It’s all cedars.’
‘Well, but it won’t always be,’ he warned her. ‘For every new man in this country, a hundred trees come down.’
Pa dug the hole. Ma said it was the wrong way round, Sissy had to point east so she could jump up on Judgement Day. So Pa filled it in and started digging again.
He went down to Michigan looking for farm work, and came back in the fall just as the geese were wheeling south. He said the States offered a man more opportunity. But Ma said she wasn’t going anywhere. She said whatever country a woman had buried a child in, that was her country always.
When I played hopscotch, in those days, I used to pretend Sissy was behind me. If I heard a tap on the ground, that was her hopping. I could almost see her out the corner of my eye.
I remember the night of the fire, that must have been 1845. It started in the stables of the Robinson Hall Hotel, not a minute’s walk from Sissy’s grave. Afterwards I wondered if Sissy had set it, somehow; if she was restless, wanting some amusement. She’d always longed to play with Pa’s tinderbox, when she was alive. The fire leapt between the wooden roofs, ate up just about everything between Ridout Street and Talbot Street. Leather buckets of water were no match for the flames; like spitting at a dragon. Singed pigs ran screaming through the ashy mud.
The next day we went back to where our cabin had been, to see if we could salvage anything. The whole world was black and fuming, it was like the picture of Hell in the Cathedral. I whispered to Ma, ‘The trees are all burnt up over Sissy.’
‘Never mind that,’ she said. ‘Charred wood never dies.’
I stared at her.
‘That lovely little coffin won’t ever rot away now,’ she told me. ‘Burning preserves.’
There was a school in town now, so my parents made me go and learn to read. Pa shot pigeons from the roof of the Tecumseh House Hotel; he’d pack them in brine and sell them by the dozen. Pretty soon I was old enough to leave school and go round asking to do people’s laundry. Ma had grown very skinny. She used to make baby clothes for the officers’ wives, all snow-white with hemmed edges. The British garrison moved out, the year I turned eighteen, and after that they used the buildings for a school for all those black fugitives up from the States.
My father died of fever one fall, in 1865, with the last geese barking away overhead. We buried him in the cemetery. The block Sissy’s grave was on was filling up fast. There was a new hotel called the City, with fancy steep roofs and a barber shop and a big stable. All the stages stopped there now; I used to sell bags of peanuts to the passengers.
A man called Michael Smith proposed to me. He had a brick house in a terrace on York Street. At first I told him no, because of my sister.
‘I didn’t know you had a sister.’
‘I had,’ I told him, my throat feeling like it had a sharp stone in it. ‘She ran off and fell in the river when she was two, so I’m all Ma’s got.’
He sighed like a creaking tree. ‘Well, bring your mother with you, then.’
After we moved to York Street, a man bought the lot Sissy’s grave was on, and felled the young cedars that had grown up there after the fire, and built a dry-goods store. I used to go in once in a while, and pretend to look at bonnets.
Michael thought Ma would be useful for when the little ones came along – I guess he imagined I was the right side of forty – but I had a feeling there wouldn’t be any, and I was right. I wouldn’t have liked to trust myself with another child. Whenever I tried to picture a baby, it had Sissy’s face.
Ma died in her sleep the year after our wedding. We buried her in the cemetery. The geese honked by that fall, and then spring dazzled us as quick as a blink, and the years spun past like pebbles from a catapult. The town was bulging at the seams; downtown was all lit up with gas lamps. Men came drilling for oil at the forks, but instead they struck a sulphur spring. Terrible, it smelled, but Americans came to drink it for their health. Streetcars ran by so fast you had to watch your step or you’d be sliced in two. There were telephones ringing all over the town, and the lights turned electric, a much fiercer colour than the old gas.
Michael caught me once, he said, ‘Who are you talking to?’ I just shook my head. I knew it was a foolish habit, to be telling the news to a dead child after all these years.
For a while I had a job at Jose Gasté’s cigar factory on King Street, rolling tobacco leaves, and Michael worked for Reid’s crockery store on Dundas. We had all the chipped plates we could use. In 1907, the owner was converting part of the store into a bowling alley when the building fell in on itself.
I bought Michael a handsome mahogany coffin, but all I could think of was, why hide a man in a rectangular box so it doesn’t look like a casket at all? Sissy’s coffin had looked like what it was. Michael was buried in a cemetery a ways out on the Hamilton road.
After I lost my job at the Coilene and Featherbone Corset Company, I used to go to the Free Press on Richmond Street, buy the papers for two cents and sell them on for ten. Sometimes on summer evenings I stood by the forks of the river and rested my widow’s bones, watched the children splashing around like dogs. Oh, sister, my sister, where have you been? It seemed to me that our shared lives had forked, and Sissy’s had sunk down into the earth like a secret stream, but mine had rushed on blindly in the light of day.
There was a war, and all the boys got on the train in their smart uniforms, and then another war after that. I didn’t pay much attention, I had enough to do just to feed myself and pay the rent on my room. They changed the name of the City Hotel to the Belvedere and then the Talbot Inn, but it was still the same building, still half a block from Sissy’s bones. Names don’t make any difference to a place as long as somebody remembers.
You had to dial the number on phones, now, instead of speaking to the operator. Cars, televisions, everything made a humming or a beeping or a shrieking. Old buildings came down like sandcastles. Sometimes square grey ones would rise up on the same spots, but more often they just left the gaps. Sissy wouldn’t have cared for all this, I thought. She liked it when it was birds and cedars and hard maple sugar to suck on. Maybe she was better off where she was.
Finally they knocked down that whole row of stores on Talbot, razed it to the ground, I don’t know why. So now Sissy’s grave was flat to the sun and the hail again, which I was glad about. One day there was a big shiny car parked with its front left wheel right over Sissy’s grave, so I took a rock and scraped a cross on the side of the car: X marks the spot. The car alarm started shrieking like a demon but I just dropped the rock and walked on.
You could get a free dinner three times a week at the Cathedral if you lined up and didn’t mind the madmen. I liked when it was soup because my teeth were gone. Some days it was hard to get out of bed and I had to use my stick. The geese went off in the fall with their clamour and raced back in the spring, and the hot-air balloons went down the river every summer, and sometimes the night sky was freckled with fireworks. Sissy would have liked the scatter and bang of them.
People said this was a new millennium but it didn’t feel any different to me. The river looked clean enough these days, the banks were all neatened up with concrete and wire, but nobody swam there; they said it had a toxic blob in it. One day was pretty much like another now, the sun and the orange leaves and the snow, whirling by as they always had, only faster, fast enough to blur.
Then they fenced off the parking lot at King and Talbot, and started digging it up. I saw a newspaper lying in the gutter one day. It was March, and the snow was packed hard, dirty brown. The headline said Discovery of Child’s Coffin Halts Building of $42 Million Arena and Entertainment Complex. I picked it up and peered at it. Local Children’s Hearts Go Out to Mystery Tot.
I laughed. I didn’t do it very often anymore, as it alarmed people. I went down Talbot Street, going slow on the frozen patches. There was a knot of people gathered in the parking lot, around a hole marked off with yellow tape. ‘That’s my sister,’ I remarked to a man standing beside me.
‘Where?’ he said, looking at the journalists with their big microphones.
‘In the ground,’ I told him. ‘In that coffin they’ve found.’
‘No,’ he said patiently, shaking his hands to warm them, ‘you’ve got it wrong. It’s historical, like, pioneer days.’
‘That’s my little sister,’ I told him again.
‘I think you’re a bit confused, ma’am,’ he told me, with this uneasy grin on his face. ‘You’d have to have been alive for a century and a half.’
I shrugged and walked off.
It’s not like I ever asked for this. I would have been more than willing to die before now, but it never happened. I blame Sissy.
Oh, sister, my sister.
If I can’t be honest now, then when’s that day ever going to come? Truth slices hard, like the blade of a spade. I saw Sissy running towards the forks of the river, that day, and I was glad. I thought, let her fall in the river, that’ll learn her to run like the devil and pay her big sister no mind.
There now. It’s not much of a story. It shouldn’t matter, after all this time. Children died a lot in those days, died of the runs or got caught in the plough or fell into the fire. Even now, children are always dying for no reason. I’ve seen a boy caught in the cattle bars of one of these fancy new jeeps and flung twenty feet. This city is built on the bones of its makers, like every other city. Why should it matter? Why should I walk an endless penitential pilgrimage till Judgement Day?
I’m worn out like a rag. They used to say, if a person was murdered they were doomed to walk the earth forever. But it was Sissy who lay down to sleep, and me who killed her, who had to keep walking, keep haunting this city.
I know what to do now. I’ll wait till dark. It’s not that cold, nothing I’m not used to. I’m just waiting till everyone’s gone home. Then I’ll crawl in there, past the piled snow and yellow tape and barricades. I’ll lie down in the hole beside Sissy’s coffin, and shut my eyes, and wait, and maybe at last she’ll let me in.
During the digging of foundations for an arena in downtown London, Ontario (where I live), a little grave from the 1840s was discovered. Several families underwent genetic testing in the vain hope of proving they were related to the unknown child, who was subsequently reburied elsewhere. ‘Sissy’ was commissioned by the Globe and Mail (5 May 2001) in response.
Read a story from Emma Donoghue's new collection, Astray