wtf pwm

Little Sister

J. David Bell

You blame yourself for what happened. For what is still happening. You pray that with enough contrition will come resolution, if not absolution.

At the appointed time you rise, lay the squirming child in its seat, and approach the altar. You dip, mime the cross, ascend the steps to the pulpit. Your eyes travel the empty pews, briefly meeting mine. And then, in a halting voice, hushed by the great vault of the cathedral, you begin. Her eulogy, your confessional. Your plea for forgiveness.

The room you shared, you say, was always cold: at the top of the house, where the warmth never ventured. Yet somehow you managed to keep her cozy with your own inadequate blanket, your own chattering body. Nights you'd cuddle her as if she were your own, stroke her matted hair, work out tangles with your fingernails. Mornings you'd slip her down the stairs like a secret, avoiding the front room where your mother sprawled in her recliner. The years of planning and practice to get it just right! Uniforms ready, washed and ironed the night before, underpants (two pairs, for accidents) laid out, a third in your backpack just in case. You gloried in clean undergarments. A brush tucked away for the bus ride, you sitting beside her, gently tugging the stubborn knots that always reformed despite your nighttime ministrations. Sometimes, you say, her head would fall against your shoulder while you worked, and you would keep at it the whole ride, brush and hand laboring to straighten and smooth. Passive through the worst snarls, at most she'd silently sniffle, blotting your collar with snot.

How you managed when home or nature didn't cooperate you'll never know. Too many random agents to mar your plans: creaking stairs, sudden snowfalls. Once, you say, the bus driver abruptly pulled over, yanked open the door, and bolted. When it became evident to all aboard that he wasn't returning, you were faced with an awful choice: walk the mile back home and take your chances, or risk the five-mile trek down the rural route to school. You wisely chose the latter. While the handful of children crept off the bus and scattered, most making for home, some for school, a few for an unplanned holiday, you hoisted two backpacks, took her hand, and set off. Before you got halfway she was wailing, exhausted and needing the bathroom. You led her to a field only to find she'd already wet herself. You encouraged her to squeeze out the last drop of pee, helped her change, and then--you'll never know how--hauled her onto your shoulders for the distance left. None of the infrequent cars offered their aid, not that you'd have taken it anyway. She went again before you reached school, there on your back, you realizing it only when it soaked through to your skin. When you arrived at last, three hours late, your stockings were ruined, she was asleep on your back, and your mother was waiting for you.

She could have driven the only route you could take, of course. But no--she'd gone out of her way, to show you you were responsible.

If the rest of the week was your punishment, Sunday was your special penance. The one day your mother shook off her stupor and became frighteningly, vividly intense. Sitting beside you at church, wincing at every word. Tears on her cheeks, hands knotted so you could see veins. She never looked at you, you say, but you could tell by the hitch in her breath when you'd failed to observe the proper focus, piety, posture. Or, more typically, when you'd failed to enforce it in your fidgeting, dress-pulling avatar. The stained glass saints shook their corpse gray fingers, clucked their crystalline tongues, while you sank your head in shame. At home after the service, you accepted your mother's blows as if they were the necessary consummation of the Mass. You knew if she exhausted herself on you your fellow sinner would escape punishment. After that, you crept to the room you shared to find her in hiding, curled in the corner behind her bed. You righted her, pulled strands of dust from her hair, and waited out the remainder of the day.

The house was not without its pleasures, you admit. Playtime was anytime no one was watching, which was most times. The woods were near, harboring palaces, forts, and chapels, the spires of pines serving equally as turret and tabernacle, fallen logs doubling as throne and pew. In summer there was the creek for crayfish and cross country expeditions, in winter a nearly bare slope for your jittery piecemeal sled (it gave the name “Flexible Flyer” new meaning), you squatting in the rear while she crouched between your thighs. The house itself was perfect for hide and seek, if you knew which spots to avoid. Whether by unspoken compact or childish forgetfulness, there was one space beneath the basement stairs the seeker always overlooked (as, most of the time, did the hider). Meals were casual, scraped together at odd hours from whatever in pantry and refrigerator was neither hopelessly out of date nor moldy beyond recall. You became expert at teasing free the spots of fibrous green and tiny dandelion-hairs that sprouted on rolls, cucumbers, potatoes. The stove you used seldom and tended watchfully, as much for the habit of burners to flicker into half-circles of blue flame and then out as for the too-awful prospect of scorched pots' smoke and smell. At dusk in the warmer months you took your meals to the front porch and watched rabbits colonize the lawn, their ecstatic tails petering into darkness if you neared.

Much of this you've told me before, in nighttime confidences, not here, where the quiet of the cathedral seems to yawn emptier the more you strive to fill it. But you need to speak, to unburden yourself. So you press on.

As a child she was awkward, you say, arms folded under ribs, elbows jutting like spikes. Magically, shoes always seemed too loose the day after they'd been bought. She tripped through childhood. Once she grew she kept that stick-figure quality, her teenaged shape hanging on a frame too gaunt to carry it. By some mean quirk she developed before you did, so there was no answer you could give to the horrified demand in her voice. Though you'd learned about it in health class, her first blood was alien to you, a brown blotch on the mattress that made your stomach leap not in sympathy but in outrage and disgust. You were forced from the medicine cabinet first, forbidden to touch the vials of deodorant and boxes of tampons that took up residence there. Then you were banished from the bathroom itself, with its strange smells and discarded applicators. You showered in the basement. By this time your morning ablutions had changed so much it hardly mattered.

Exactly when she started sleeping with boys you can't say. It must have been before she turned fourteen, though, because it was around then you first heard her utter an expression that floored you with its vulgarity. (The expression, which concerned a sex act you didn't know existed, was directed at you.) She'd been dressing the part for years, donning tops that were barely more than bras, their laced patterns and low necklines vying for the Madonna bridal-night-slut look. Her back and belly bore tattoos, twin crucifixes pointing recklessly downward. Her face was a desperate horror, stringy hair fencing wild eyes, Alice Cooper on a bad mascara trip. She'd been smoking since twelve, stealing cigarettes from your mother and practicing in the now off-limits bathroom's mirror, clouding the attic and leaving butts with red lipstick stains in the toilet and trash. Soon enough she graduated to pot, its reedier odor distinguishable for a time before all distinctions were lost. When she moved on to harder stuff--speed, crack, dope--you couldn't guess, largely because you'd barely heard of these things until well after she'd left home. All you know is that the atmosphere in the room and the stench of her at the end of the day became so bad you had no choice but to relocate your entire living space to the basement.

Your mother, typically, showed neither awareness nor concern at these changes, unless you counted the especially severe beatings you bore on her behalf. Church had been a two-person affair for so long it was likely your mother had simply given her up as lost.

She miscarried at fifteen, you say. Had no idea she was pregnant until she went to bed queasy and woke up screaming, her stomach knotted, she told you through clenched teeth, like when she used to have to go really, really bad. From your spot in the basement it seemed her cries rattled the house, but your mother didn't respond. You raced upstairs to her reeking room and found her doubled on the edge of the bed, naked (she slept that way), bony arms wrapped around her middle. At first you thought she was throwing up. When you pieced together what was happening and tried to convince her to go to the emergency room, she grabbed your arm and wouldn't let go. You held her hand--she clutched it to her mouth and bit into your knuckles, but you barely felt it--and stroked her wet hair. When it was done, when the pain and bleeding seemed to have stopped, you bundled the bloody sheet and went into the bathroom for a cold compress, your eyes guiltily flicking over her things: lighter, razors, eyeliner. You patted the washcloth to her forehead while she lay back in bed and took a series of deep, panting breaths, eyes closed. Then she opened them and, seeing that you had not left, screamed at you to get out, never to come into her room again.

You didn't, either. You rose before dawn the next day, burying the sheet in the forest mist, then dialed in her absence and took the bus to school. Her door remained closed for a week. When it opened one morning, you looked in and found her gone.

This time, though, she left a gift. A housewarming, let's call it. The day you noticed her missing, the principal halted you as you boarded the bus for home, took you to her office, and told you of the terrible tragedy. To which you reacted (you say) with a bitter, knowing laugh she mistook for a sob.

There was no proof she'd done it, no proof anyone had. A partially doused cigarette in the ashtray your mother balanced on her recliner was enough, the house was a tinderbox. Much to your surprise, you learned she'd been marked present at school that day. Her disappearance was certainly suspicious, but as all her possessions had burned along with the house, her flight could be taken as grief. And it didn't matter what anyone thought, because she had vanished as completely as the torched house and the careless woman whom all evidence pointed to as the fire's lone perpetrator and victim.

But you were sure she'd done it. You didn't know how, but you were sure. And you were sure, too, she'd done it not so much to show your mother as to show you.

For a long time then she became more rumor than fact. What little money there'd been had gone to your mother's headstone, so you reluctantly accepted the community's charity, places to stay for the months before graduation, places to work afterward. You settled into a role at the old school, part custodial, part teacher's aide. You returned to your apartment each evening smelling of ammonia and chalk dust. At every opportunity you sought information about her, pumped classmates, visited the grave of the old house, the black circle of burned timber scraped clean and blooming with daisies and young outcroppings from the forest. Now and again you'd hear from girlfriends who thought they'd caught sight of her: loitering on downtown corners in heels and leather miniskirt, curled on park benches in a late edition quilt, weaving barefoot along the blacktop. One swore she'd seen her manacled, hirsute, in the back of a squad car. Another, less plausibly, thought she'd glimpsed her in a carpet cleaning commercial. But if she remained local, she did her best to keep herself hidden from your eyes.

You never found her, you've said, but she always found you.

How she ended up at our wedding even you will never know. You'd put out feelers, of course, made calls, but with no result. Then, as if she'd read your thoughts or been watching all along, she materialized. Her supreme opportunity to shame you, she couldn't pass that up. She came to the rehearsal dinner with her boyfriend of the week. They groped and giggled through the toasts. Later we found them in the coatroom, rifling pockets. When you tried to lay a soothing hand on her arm she raked you with those claws of hers. The boyfriend, a bearded guy in sunglasses, stood by menacingly. In the scuffle that followed he ended up bloodying your nose, while she cackled with delight. It took the manager and most of the busing crew to throw the two out. She stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and hurled godforsaken taunts at the world, the wind, the sky. But mostly, you knew, at you.

And still she was brazen enough to return the next morning. Teetering inside an enormous bell-shaped gown, you have no idea how she got her hands on it, her hair in spikes and layers like some punk Cinderella. Miraculously, she performed the special part you'd planned for her, marching in mismatched before the other bridesmaids, only sniffling a little and tugging at her skirt where it bunched over her ass. Then, midway through the vows, she let loose. Her eyes glazed, a loony smile spread across her lips, and the next thing anyone knew she was shouting, calling you a whore and me a bastard, whirling in the bulbous dress as if she were on fire. The congregation froze as her howls climbed like a crazy choir crooning curses in the rafters. Monsignor looked for all the world like he was ready to perform an exorcism, and maybe he had the right idea. She collapsed at last, disappearing into the dress like the Wicked Witch of the West, only to spring up and flee down the aisle. She held her skirt aloft like a practiced belle, her heels clattered on the stone. When the door slammed shut and the noise finally subsided, Monsignor, unflappable as one could possibly be under the circumstances, picked up where he'd left off. Your face was a crimson mess, the makeup you'd spent hours applying streaked and mottled. You were too choked up to say the words I do, but he let you get by with a nod.

Every year or so afterward, she'd show up for one of her unscheduled visits. Unscheduled, but not unstudied. Saint that you are, you never probed (you'd have called it pried) into her motives. Always you were relieved she was still alive, aggrieved she was still in a state of living death. Never any perceptible change in her since the last time--when was it?--she arrived on our doorstep, bearing no gift but guilt. Cheeks hollowed and drawn, teeth lousy, breath a hot bacterial bath. Screeching her welcome as always, words tumbled on each other like a tower of knives. Filling the space with her stink, her insincerity, then gone before you had a chance to catch up or, more likely, beg for mercy. I would retreat to the den, turn up the volume, and then, when she was gone, open the windows and take a disinfectant wipe to her seat. What'd you give her this time? I'd ask. But you'd turn away and not answer.

No matter. I always knew.

I've always wondered what you hoped from these reunions. That seeing you with home, husband, and babies would summon her from the grave? That the bare reminders of her childhood would call to her? You'd managed to preserve the brush, still bearing a stray hair; ensconced in your backpack the day the house burned, it never left its spot beside the powder room sink. But why should these relics strike her as an entreaty when they always struck you as a reproach? Maybe you hoped the trace of the divine you still clung to would manifest itself in her, the mild-eyed Christ and sleek alabaster Mary that adorned the hallway would spark her conversion. What you failed to see was that she could never be convinced, any more than you, by these surrogates. She knew your God remained an angry God, a petty God, a God who clutched and cursed, not a God who healed.

The same God who goads you today.

You are not yet finished. No other mourner has appeared, unless you count the guy with long greasy hair and dark blue suit jacket who lounged in the rear, noisily working food from his teeth. He left before you were halfway through. Yet still you continue, beseeching the near-empty cathedral. Your eyes rove beyond her coffin, her wrecked profile, flickering across my face, hunting for sympathetic eyes. Finding none, you forge ahead.

You tell what you have never told anyone, even me, before.

The assembly. She was nine, you twelve. You'd been chosen to represent your school when the visitors came. You studied your script, knew your lines by heart. She clapped nightly as you recited. You took extra care with your uniforms the night before, ironing until each was slick as a slate, hanging the two alone in the closet, your other clothes piled on the floor. That morning, after fixing your own, you made her hair into a fuzzy braid, smoothed her collar, thumbed out a smudge on her cheek. She glowed. The purpose and significance of the event escaped her, but she knew it must be wonderful because of you. You were solemn with her on the bus, reminding her to sit straight in assembly, hands folded. When you left her at her classroom door she spoke your name like a talisman.

You will never know what came over you on the stage, you say. Whether the absurdity of it all struck you just then as you looked out over the monochromatic display of collars and wimples, or whether, at just that moment, you succumbed to a stray impulse you'd suppressed your entire childhood adulthood. You didn't forget your lines; they were in your mind as you spoke. Maybe seeing her there in the fifth row, neat as a pin and impossibly worshipful, made you wicked. Maybe you wanted to see someone else suffer for a change. You opened your mouth to speak, but instead of the carefully prepared hymn to Christian education you'd been handpicked to deliver you announced that God couldn't be real, you had never felt His presence, He must be a lie grownups used to bully little children. Your exact words, before you were rushed off the stage. There was the predictable uproar, the visitors rising like a black wave, schoolchildren hooting in release or terror, teachers hushing and threatening. And there was punishment, immediate and terrible, the worst being neither the principal's nor your mother's blows--those beatings you expected and knew you deserved--but the grief you met in her eyes.

She boarded the bus that afternoon with her proud braid clawed loose, her cheeks dirtier than usual, her eyes bright and red. It was the first fight of many, some with girls far older than she, some with boys. She lost every one, you say, but never backed down. While you went about repairing your reputation--lowering your head and voice, saying your prayers, seeking out the most thankless chores--she went about scratching and kicking her way to perdition. You begged her to stop, but it was as if she'd finally discovered her calling as the hapless defender of your bruised honor. She accumulated battle wounds like merit badges: a split lip, a blackened orbit, a chipped tooth. Once you caught her in the schoolyard swinging wild roundhouses at a girl twice her size, who looked as sorry as she reasonably could as she decked her with a single blow. Corporal punishment yielded to detention, detention to suspension (spent, you knew, under your mother's almost entirely wanton supervision), and then, just shy of expulsion, it stopped. She never spoke, never explained why, simply boarded the bus one day with her clothes as unruffled as they'd been in the morning and her eyes lowered, withdrawn into herself as if the past year had been a dream. You and the school breathed a deep sigh of relief. Neither of you foresaw what was coming.

You blame yourself for her fall. Of course you would. But how can you know? She was nine when the incident occurred, two long years before her first period, longer still before her first truly grievous sin. Yours was a single indiscretion in a righteous life. As always, you blow things out of proportion.

You are almost done. The boys have concluded their game of pew peek-a-boo. The child, having keened miserably through the service, has at last fallen into fitful sleep. Her hands in the coffin clutch a crucifix, just above the two, front and back, the mortician is now the last to know lie permanently woven into her skin. Her latest rage, as much an addiction as any of the junk she'd snorted or smoked over the years. Born again. Holier than thou. Or at least than you.

They discovered the cancer when they ran the intake physical. She'd been feeling weak, losing weight for months, but if she ever stopped to think about it, she assumed it was the drugs. By the time it was diagnosed it had torn through her body and begun tunneling into her brain. When she was told, she asked them to get word out to her sister. She had one last request to make of you. She knew you wouldn't turn her down.

How typical of her that, even in her divine moment of expiation, she found a way to pass the buck. She didn't finish the program, or technically even begin it; she no sooner went off meth than they pumped her full of chemo. If there was a way to get high on that, she'd be the one to find it. True repentance deferred, the child she ruined palmed off on you and yours. Its true measure of damage too deeply buried to see. Her failure always your cross, her salvation your judgment.

You describe her final scene. You arrived at the hospital to find her curled within her nightgown, her gap-toothed smile enormous as a clown's grin on a shrunken head. Her voice soft, her words earnest. It was, you say, as if the disease had stripped not only her flesh but her past. She told you about the house, told you it was an accident, and you believed her. Told you about the child, how she'd been turning tricks for years when it came along, how she'd been on the brink of abandoning it when she found it lent her novelty, something she sorely needed. But it wasn't the child, she told you, that had brought her back to Christ. No child could do that. It was the Good Lord's hand reaching into a sinner's life, lifting her, showing her the light.

She asked you to say the rosary with her, to recite the Lord's Prayer. Her cheeks and forehead flinched, her gem blue eyes bored into yours. Perfect replicas of the eyes that now search mine. Trying, still trying to convince me, to convince yourself.

God is real, she assured you. He forgave.

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