Many men had been in love with my sister over the years. Boys in school sent her love notes. Painters asked her to model, but she laughed and told them they should model for her instead. Once a fellow from New York showed up on our doorstep. Our father chased him off by pointing a rifle at him, which was laughable considering my father’s kind nature and the fact that the gun hadn’t worked for years. My sister’s caller stood his ground, and my father invited him in for dinner. He was a wealthy man, bewitched by my sister’s talent and her beauty, but in the end Sara chose Billy Kelly, whom she’d known since they were in school. He was steady, she told me, like a rock. I was only a child but I wanted to say a man is not a rock. I myself would have preferred a man who was like a river, changing and quick, always a surprise.
I OPENED THE door of the cottage, eager to do anything my sister asked. There was a scrim of dust in the air, yellow, like the grass in the fields. The parlor was silent, except for the clock on the mantel. I went to the bedroom and knocked. The door opened under my touch. There was Sara, in bed, her dog lying by her side. Our father had bought her that dog, a pug she named Topsy, when she was little more than my age. He was nearly fifteen by now, ancient for his breed. Topsy was her protector and her friend, her only company since she’d taken ill. Now he stood and barked at me, as if he hadn’t known me my whole life.
“Topsy.” I was startled by how vicious he was. “It’s just me.”
Sara reached to pet him, and he quieted under her touch. Still he glared at me.
My parents had let my sister name me. Thankfully she hadn’t called me something to rhyme with Topsy. I might have been Flopsy if Sara had been a less poetic child. For three weeks I was nameless, a baby in my cradle. At last my sister decided upon Azurine. She said she couldn’t find a name beautiful enough for me so she invented one. It was the name of a watercolor paint, a wash of blue-green, mutable, gemlike. Perhaps you belong to anyone who names you. If that was so, then it was surely true of both Topsy and of me. Which of us was more distraught to see my sister in such distress, I couldn’t say.
I sat in a chair near the bed and said my sister’s name. How extraordinary a word it was, elemental, pure.
“Don’t come too close,” Sara warned. She held a handkerchief over her mouth. “I’ve been talking with Mother and Daddy. I speak with them all the time.” I shivered to think how close she was to the dead, able to hear their words. “I’m the favorite,” she announced, as if she were a little girl and I her proud aunt.
“You’re my favorite too,” I told her.
She was wasting away, but still beautiful. Because of her fever her hair was wet. She looked the way she had when she was photographed in Boston, standing on the shore.
“I have a wish.” Sara’s expression was serious and focused. All at once I realized she knew it was the end. I understood I needn’t keep that secret from her. For that I was grateful.
I moved my chair closer in order to hear. I had better remember every instant, for it would never come again. There was the tray with last night’s supper perched on the sill, untouched. The pitcher of water was filled to the brim. The window was raised and sparrows clustered on the ledge, chattering, pecking at the roll on the plate. I didn’t feel that I was ten years old, even though that was the number of my years on earth. Not anymore. I knew more than a girl should know. I saw my sister’s sorrow. Maybe I should have been more like Hannah and covered my ears.
“I need you to take care of the one I love. Promise you’ll never leave him.”
Sara’s voice was thick. Speaking was difficult for her. It may have been that she had never before asked anyone for anything and that was difficult as well. In her lifetime she had given far more than she had received. I was speechless when I heard her request. I thought she meant Billy, and for an instant I wondered if she had forgotten I was only a child. I shuddered. Did she expect me to spend my life caring for her husband, perhaps even marrying him the way some surviving sisters did? All the same I gave Sara my promise. My face was wet with tears, but I controlled my voice and managed to sound like a reasonable person, one who had just pledged her life away.
“I’ll write to Billy today,” I said. “I’ll watch over him.”
“Billy!” My sister almost smiled. “No. Not Billy. I want you to take Topsy. He’ll be yours now.”
I was relieved in some ways, saddened in others. It was as though my sister had left the human world behind. And Topsy, who was to be mine, was growling.