memoir: sister tongue
The colour of the tomatoes is changing each day. There are two on the vine; plump sisters, green-golden in the dapple beneath the frangipani tree. They were green yesterday, and now they have changed.
I plucked a large tomato from the vine a few days ago. It was almost bursting, skin taut, still somnolent with the smell of the young tomato it was the day before. When I was young, my sister and I ransacked the gardens of the school my mother worked at. The after-school hours were heavy and still, thrilling with the promise of things we weren’t supposed to do. We ate every tomato we saw: green and furry-smelling, the fruit was still too young to talk. I pulled peach after peach off the fruit trees, and ate my way through their unripeness to a few golden-warm bites. Young peach fur; the thick smell of unripe tomatoes. The nausea I feel at the smell of both has not dimmed over the fifteen years or so since then, when I was first young and greedy for the unknown, for what was not mine.
My sister stands in the white kitchen and roasts pumpkin and creamy cheese, bathing them in oil and making crisp salty crusts on each piece. Her discarded shoes are brown, her toes pink, the curve of her back thin and tired. My sister’s feet remind me of the great pine in my grandparents’ garden that sheds a halo of pinpricks, making the sea of carefully mowed green beneath it a minefield. We could have climbed into the sky from the pine’s tallest branch, but we never did. Instead, we plucked green needles from our feet with shrieks and played cricket, my grandfather’s face unstricken by strokes then, his trouser creases ironed to a perfect line. My brother bounced up and down the tiered garden like a small dog, my sister and I shared a Discman when we got bored. Days were filled with violently pink fruit flummery, Mum and Nana laughing like hyenas in the kitchen, and Poppa’s slow tread in the hall that has changed with the years, becoming unsteady with cartons of wine and dementia.
My sister makes Thai salads with the lightest, lemony hand. She twists vinegar and sesame oil into a tangy wisp, slices coriander into feathers, sizzles chicken into succulent strips. I sometimes watch her cook and think I have inherited my mother’s hand at the stove. I bake beans and sweet potato in rich tomato and cumin sauce, soak cauliflower and zucchini in spicy coconut curries. My sister likes laksa and seafood and airy things that sing on her tongue; wound-red chilli, gem-red wine, cheese plump like aristocrats. I like the heavy darkness of roots from the earth, the slow sweetness of lemon and honey in hot water. Bitter chocolate, whiskey that bites. I like the tooth-burst of brown rice, chewed like a labyrinth. She is sharp and alive and sometimes I am lost in the homely; quiet in the simple liquid of solitude. Sometimes she makes me porridge and fruit juice before bustling off into the day, and I sit in the aftermath of her warmth, mellowed, her cinnamon melting on my tongue.
Ginger, lentils, and rich organic butter colours my mother’s house. She drinks gin and tonic in summer, coaxes vines around the veranda railings, watches the wood ducks nesting in the cradle of a nearby gum. While I crashed bikes with my sister and brother in school holidays, she hauled stone upon stone to build the walls of our house, nibbled away at tiles and planted a blue garden of mosaics in the bathroom. My sister and I wrote letters on gum leaves and climbed the half-built walls. Perched atop, we dropped our frail messages into the darkness and now we have small stories sealed somewhere in the house, secrets among the dried skeletons of mice crawled into the walls to die.
My sister cooks haunches in red juice that glistens like the inside of a mouth. I bake bread that rises haphazardly, rough to touch, like a callused foot. Our bodies are shaped by different pursuits; she is lean and graceful with muscle, green-eyed and rose-lipped with the most prickled, loyal heart of anyone I know. I dangled a coin above her mouth once and accidentally dropped it in. Dad swung her upside down and emptied her throat like a bag; I held the coin afterwards and looked at my dark-haired sister with wonder. When we were small, she spoke using words no-one but I could understand, and sometimes now I speak to her silently and wish that she could hear in the same way.
My sister likes parsnip and cereal, finely sliced beef and blueberries, skim milk and almonds and things that grow in her garden. Our feet used to be gravel-rough, summer-grass tough and veined with dirt. She was younger and pale like lavender, huddled with my squalling brother against the fence. A bull shuddered the earth in front of where I was frozen, so close I could see the flies in its eyes and the way the hair on its forehead looked like it had been crimped. It knocked down the walls of our play-house, branch by branch, curious to see who had unknowingly strayed into his field. I seized my brother and hurled him over the fence, thrust my sister before me and set her running toward the gate at the far end of the paddock as the bull lumbered up the hill behind us.
My sister and I have wooden bowls by the kitchen window and we fill them with fruit. We have lemons and apples and sometimes she cuts fingers off the ginger root in my bowl. I don’t mind. The last few days there have been tomatoes in the fruit bowls, gleaming, their stalks still clinging together. Yesterday I saw that someone had taken them from the bowls and put them on the windowsill. This morning they were sitting there in the sun, side by side, ripening.