The night before she died, my sister called me. It was like she knew. I wanted to hear your voice, she said, I’ll be thinking of you as I ring in the new year on a Cape Town beach. I was looking through my window at a swath of snowy pine trees; she was stepping into your car in the drowsy heat of a South African afternoon. When I remember that phone call, I always think of us talking like we did as children, tin cans pressed to our ears, a rope stretched between us. I think of what our voices had to do to reach each other that night, our words electrical pulses charging across the sea.
When we were teens, we joined Hands Across America. We wanted to feed the hungry and house the homeless; we longed to be singular links in a human chain stretching from coast to coast, like the strings of paper dolls we cut from sheets of colored paper. When we laced our fingers with the fingers of strangers, it did not occur to us that the chain would be broken in places where not enough people showed up, where there were not enough hands to hold, leaving wide gaping holes across difficult terrain, the barren pastures of the Midwest, hot deserts of the South.
Go to sleep, you said, I’ll keep driving. You’ll wake with the penguins at Boulder Beach. My sister watched an orange sun melt across the sky, tangle with clouds, rain its creamsicle shadow onto the dark eyes of sunflowers passing outside her window. She put her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder, crossed her milk-white arms across her chest and closed her eyes.
Sometimes when I’m driving at night, I think of you gripping the wheel of that car, your arms heavy like hurricane sandbags, your eyes hot little pools of boiling water. I can see the road before you, dark and narrow and straight through villages and shanty towns. I can hear the night’s rhythmic song lulling you.
I called you after it happened. You were alone, recovering in a Johannesburg hospital. My sister was dead by then, her body ice cold in a nearby morgue. Soon, they would light her on fire, burn her to ash, mail her home to me in a box.
A nurse pressed the phone to your ear.
Oh, hi, you said.
How are you doing? I asked.
Well, my hands are broken.
You threw it out like that. Like you needed me to know. And soon it was all I could think about, your broken hands: skin blackened by bruises, knuckles swollen with pus, fingers rigid and bent. How they must have ached with the pain and the weight of what you’d done.
Later, I spread my sister’s capulana across my chest and used it as a blanket while I slept in her childhood bed. Made from shiny soft silk, it swirled with gold and green and inky blue. Large, lavender palm fronds ran along its edge. It had arrived in a box of her things, zippered into the backpack she had carried with her that night. It smelled of her; it smelled of Africa; it smelled of the dirt and the sweat and the blood caked onto it.
I often imagine what your hands look like today, 20 years later, the hands of an older man, no longer a boy, the hands of survival, of someone who lived. Sometimes they rise in prayer, palms pressed together, fingers pointed at the sky.
Jamy Bond’s stories and essays have appeared in JMWW, Barren Magazine, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Sun and The Rumpus, among others. She earned an MFA from George Mason University where she co-founded the literary journal So To Speak. She lives on the banks of Aquia Creek just outside of Washington, DC.