My sister’s parlor reeks of sickly sweetness, and I worry that she’s been going after the neighbors again.
“Shouldn’t you throw them away?” I ask, taking note of the men’s shoes on the rug and the hat on the back of the sofa.
“In time,” she says from behind me, shuffling slowly in her silk house slippers. There is a weariness in her voice, a sadness grown stronger since our last afternoon tea. We usually meet at my house. I prefer it that way. Even though she is younger, I have more energy for the ritual of steeping and serving; but this was her invitation.
As the sun sets beyond the stained glass window, it bleeds red light over the Turkish rug. My sister pauses in the doorway, surveying the room.
“I’m not being lazy,” she says as I pass a drooping pair. “I just can’t bear to throw them away. They were once beautiful.”
“Yes, but now they’re shriveled,” I say with disgust, sitting down in one of the Queen Anne chairs. “That one is starting to smell, and those are growing mold.”
“I can’t smell anything,” she says sadly. “So that doesn’t bother me, and I do still like the look of them.” She shuts the French doors behind her. No one else is allowed in the parlor.
It’s a lovely room, filled with delicate knickknacks and shiny baubles from around the world. My sister’s now-deceased husband had a flair for decorating. I always thought that’s why she picked him on our boat ride over the ocean. What did we know of keeping house? Our cabins in the forest were rustic wood and chicken feet.
She rings for tea; and as we wait, she caresses the corpse closest to her—the gardener. Dried and brittle, a few pieces of skin flake off and fall to the floor.
“I’m having a harder time letting go of the past,” she says. “It’s starting to feel like nothing but ghosts remain in all the old familiar places.”
“No such thing,” I say and reach for the brooch around my neck, a gift from a lover long gone. I’ll never admit it that she’s right, always playing the older and wiser sister. “Age is in the mind. Isn’t that what they say?”
“Bah. That’s what young people say to make the old ones feel better,” she retorts, then cackles, “but we know better.”
I force a grin and worry that she’ll leave me, that I won’t be strong enough without her.
A knock on the door and she goes to collect the tray from the housekeeper, then sets it down before me—the blackest of Russian Caravan tea, steeping in the tiny teapot we brought with us when we fled. Bone china, of course, carved from our oldest sister’s skull. Odd that she chose to use it today. We usually saved it for special occasions.
“Do you miss her?” she asks.
“It’s not like we left her behind,” I answer with a grin.
“True,” she says, but the way she tenderly touches the teapot betrays her flippant tone. “That is something.”
I pour the perfect amount into our matching teacups, then add hot water and sugar— several teaspoons to satisfy the sweet tooth we both have. Of course, the tiny spoon is also carved from bone.
“When will you harvest the latest bunch?” I ask, making a sweeping gesture with my hand around the room.
She is an artist and loves to be surrounded by her work. I prefer to keep mine outside. There’s less to clean up. Plus I never did like the smell of death. For me, it’s all about the beautiful bones.
“It’s almost the right time of year,” she says, then slips into our native tongue, “Sistrichka, my dearest Baba Yaga, you know the sun must be strong enough to bleach the bones.”
She reaches over and pulls a thighbone from the skeletal corpse arranged on the couch. The bone comes off with a pop, and she strokes it with affection, “Perhaps a rolling pin?”
She pats my knee. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I do not need another rolling pin. You can use it to repair the fence around your garden.”
“You’ll need them—” I begin, but when I see the look on her face, I know she’s made her choice.
“I’m older,” I say. “I should go next, and I’m nowhere near ready.”
“But I am,” she says, this time without sadness. We silently watch the last of the sunlight wash up the wall and vanish into night.
“More tea?” I ask.
“Please,” she says, then again. “Please.”
Her appeal is not about the tea. I take her cup and open the ring on my finger, tapping out a little of the powder. She watches me swirl it into the liquid in her cup, then add sugar.
“I think I’d fancy it if you made me a sugar dish carved with dragonflies,” she says, “Something beautiful.”
I take my sister’s bony hand and hold it for a moment. Then I place the teacup in her palm. She brings it to her lips, and smiles. For a moment I see her as a young girl, and I want to snatch it back and smash it. I want to hold onto her and carry her back to the safety of our childhood forest. I want to put my arms around her and hide, like we did when there were three Yaga sisters—young girls hiding behind the tallest pine to escape the wolves who hunted our scent. I want to tell her I love her, but I say nothing. Do nothing.
“You always were the best of us,” she says, then drinks the tea.
She begins to hum a song from childhood, and I close my eyes to wait for the inevitable silence. For her sake, I pray that the sweetness will overpower the natural bitterness. It is really all we can ever hope for.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Valya Dudycz Lupescu is the author of Amazon bestselling novel, The Silence of Trees, and the founding editor of Conclave: A Journal of Character. Her poetry and prose have been published in various literary and genre magazines, including Gone Lawn, Jersey Devil Press, Mythic Delirium, Scheherezade’s Bequest, Abyss & Apex, Fickle Muses, and The Pedestal Magazine. Valya earned her MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she occasionally teaches writing and freelances. The mother of three children, Valya is fueled by copious amounts of coffee. You can follow her blog at: www.vdlupescu.com/journal or on twitter @Valya