I was born on a stormy New Year’s Day, and my sister Gina followed five minutes later. They tell me I fretted and sobbed, stopping only when they placed her in the crib beside me. That's the way it was with us always: neither ever felt complete without the other close by.
We slept in the same bed until we were nine or ten, often singing ourselves to sleep or making up bedtime stories for each other. I can still remember the comforting sensation of her breath on the back of my neck, as we slept with arms and legs entwined.
One year during the school holidays, our parents managed to acquire a mobile home by the lake. We were to have it for the whole summer. It wasn’t far from the city, but was far enough away to feel like a different world to us. Dad had to work but he came down to stay at weekends. Gina and I spent almost every minute outdoors. We filled our days paddling in the lake, skimming stones, calling out across the water to hear our voices echo eerily back from the cliffs on the distant shore. Occasionally as a special treat, Dad would bring us to the nearby hotel for dinner. How happy we were then, with a long summer of freedom and adventure stretching out ahead of us.
Aunty Joyce sometimes came to stay for a few days. Dad called her Aunty Joy and she lived up to this name in almost everything she did. She was our Godmother and favourite aunt and loved to buy us presents. For our twelfth birthday she gave us each a silver identity bracelet with our names engraved, so she could tell us apart, she said, laughing. When we put them on we swore a childish oath never take them off again as long as we lived.
One glorious summer morning we begged Mum to bring us for a picnic to the woods at the far end of the lake. It was the last week of our holidays and Dad had already gone back to work. Auntie Joy was there, as eager for the hike as Gina and me, and eventually Mum agreed. As we made our way along the trail, the mobile home became no more than a speck in the distance. We had never come this far before and it was a great adventure, exploring this new territory. Running on ahead of Mum and Auntie Joy, we hid behind the huge boulders and splashed our way across the little streams that here and there trickled across our path. When we came to the small beach at the head of the lake, we settled there for our picnic.
After lunch, as the day grew hotter, Mum and Aunty Joy set out their blankets and lay in the sun. Gina and I flew around the place, exploring here, collecting coloured pebbles there, running up and back to the woods gathering pine cones and keeping an eye out for the deer and rabbits that Dad had told us lived in the woods. The heat got to us too and we sat down to examine our collected treasures. We soon became restless again and, bored with that game, decided to go for a paddle in the lake. We changed into our bathing suits and Gina led the way, with me following not more than two yards behind.
To this day I do not know how I lost her. One second she was knee deep in the water squealing at the coldness of it and the next she was gone. I thought she was playing a trick on me and I called her name, telling her not to be so mean. I called her again and again, louder each time. Mum and Joy came running, screaming, frantically searching the water, but she was gone from our sight. Not even a ripple disturbed the surface to suggest where she might be.
And then I felt it. I felt her gasping for breath and instead, breathing in water. I felt her pain as she fell weightless and helpless, the current sucking her under and tossing her about like a piece of flotsam. I felt the pull on my spirit as she died, oh my God how I felt it, an icy grip reaching into the very core of my being and wrenching it in two. I howled a deep, primeval howl, and screamed her name one last time, to be answered only by the lonely echo of my own voice.
We all died a little that day, and every day after that we died a little more as the lake refused to give her up. Eventually, three weeks later, we held her funeral mass in the hotel and the priest sprinkled holy water over the lake, the final resting place of my other half, my sister Gina.
Eighteen years passed before I could go back to the lake, a thirty-year-old woman with a broken life. The years of torment and constant nightmares, of trying to fill the hollow void in my life, had worn me down. I needed peace. I needed closure. The hotel was much as I remembered. I doubt it had even been painted in the intervening years. The room was small with a well-worn carpet and a patina of nicotine stains on the ceiling. A once white net curtain sagged across the window, through which I knew lay a spectacular view of the lake. It was too dark to see it but I could feel its brooding presence oozing from the blackness beyond.
I rose early the next morning, just before sunrise. There were few people about; everybody was sleeping off the New Year’s Eve excesses of the night before. The day had dawned bright without a cloud in the sky, except for the pink flecked vapour trails left by passing planes. A fine mist hung on the shoulders of the mountain, rolling down to settle unmoving across the surface of the lake. A breeze rippled through the rushes where a single heron kept a lonely vigil. I put on my backpack and began the fateful trek that our little group had made all those years ago.
When I reached the tiny beach where we had played on that day, the memories came flooding back. I didn't block them as I usually did. I wallowed in them, invited them in as welcome guests. I gathered stones like we had done then, this one a ruby, that one a diamond and there, look, a big shiny one. It must be gold! I wrote our names in the sand, ran up and back to the woods and clambered onto the biggest boulder calling her name at the top of my voice, not once but several times and each time the echo called it back to me. Gina. Gina. Gina.
I gathered up more pebbles and bigger stones and filled them into my back pack until it was full and almost too heavy to lift. I managed to get it onto my back and tightened the belt around my waist, walked down the beach into the water and kept going. I knew I didn’t have to walk far before the shallows gave way suddenly into the treacherous depths. Determined, I pushed on and on until at last, the floor gave way and I began to sink. Soon, those familiar feelings overwhelmed me again, the ones that have woken me screaming every night for the past eighteen years; the gasping for breath, the weightlessness, the agony of separation, but also a new feeling, one not in my memory from that day, a feeling of peace. The last thing I remember before I blacked out was a vague sensation that I was not alone.
I woke up on the shore soaked to the skin and freezing cold. Dragging myself onto my knees and coughing up water all the while, I wondered how I was still alive. It was still early and there was not another person to be seen. I realised my backpack was gone and realised too that I was holding something tightly in my right hand. I unfurled my fingers and held it up to have a closer look. It was a silver identity bracelet, tarnished, but the name was still readable: Gina. I sat for a long time, staring out over the lake trying to make sense of what had just happened. I still can’t. But one thing I do know, that sense of peace I felt under the water has never left me. Somehow and for some reason I feel whole again.
I put Gina’s bracelet on my wrist beside my own and walked back to the hotel. Maybe after all, life is about dancing in the rain.