ToC

 

SISTERS

Kathleen Blackburn

The driver is trapped in the Jeep, her head lodged between the passenger seat and door, as though stymied while looking for something that fell or flew in the space between. Perplexing, the reshaping of her body, the nape of neck to neck to face, an L. Her legs are wound around the steering wheel.  She keeps asking for her sister. Her sister lies dead outside the Jeep, on her back, glass splintered in her arms like feathers. This is what my sister, Kristen, tells me.
     But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm twenty-seven and until eighteen months ago when I packed everything I owned and my Golden Retriever into a car and drove twelve hundred miles to Ohio, I'd never lived outside of Texas or away from my three younger sisters, in a city called Lubbock. We buried our dad there when I was thirteen, his marker sinking unevenly into the ground. It's where I learned to drive on farm roads that were flat enough, people said, you could watch your dog run away for three days. We'd watch thunderstorms rage in the north and never feel a drop of rain.

The scene of the wreck is the size of a public swimming pool. There's a stillness to the shattered windows of the Jeep Cherokee, the open bed trailer, the trail of cardboard boxes, and the woman lying in the grass between the Jeep and highway. Kristen says she first smelled the burning metal, saw the stripped rubber tire, the white underarms of the dead sister lying in the grass, red blood shining on the glass in her arms, all of it on the road from Houston to Lubbock. She's a paramedic. "I would've stopped any way," she says over the phone, "but now, it's like I should.  Like there's something I can do about it because I know how."
     Since I moved to Ohio, I've learned that Kristen is not good on the phone. She takes long, untimely pauses and I think the call's been dropped. She lets the lower part of the phone slide down her chin until I can barely understand what she's saying.
     "Kristen," I say, "Please put the phone back by your mouth." When she calls me and I answer, she says my name like a question.
     "Katie?"
     "You're the one that called me," I say.
     "I know that," she says, as if she means to ask "Is it you? Can I still only reach you this way?" 

The woman in the Jeep says her name is Laura.
     "Where's my sister?" she asks.
     "Someone is taking care of her," Kristen says reaching through the car window frame.      "Can you feel my hand?"
     "Yes. Where's my sister?"
     "Someone's taking care of her. I can't go to her. I'm here with you. Please don't move."  Kristen looks over her shoulder and sees that a number of people have pulled over and there's a man doing chest compressions on Laura's sister.
     Laura says that she fell asleep at the wheel. The wreck is tucked between the hills of East Texas on 36, a highway that rises and falls with the landscape like breathing. Green mesquite sprouts low to the grass, pressed down by the heat. It can be hard to keep your eyes open on that drive.
     I imagine Laura, a woman around fifty, surfing through radio stations as her sister dozes off. She tunes in to some old country, the only thing you can find out there other than call-in shows about car repair or Jesus. Maybe she keeps the radio low so her sister can sleep better. Maybe she thinks about pulling over for a quick nap herself.
     "It'll be fine," she says, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel to the music's shuffle rhythm. She squints into the sluggish afternoon, her eyes half-open, half-shut. So easy to blink and not lift your eyelids back up. Perhaps she thinks that's all she's done—blinked—when she opens her eyes right in time to see her sister's flight through the passenger side window as though it were a glass cobweb or the surface of a lake or a spectacular fountain of scarlet and crystal. Gone that fast.

I was two when Kristen was born, but my earliest memories are of climbing the Arizona Ash barefoot in our backyard with her. The leaves vellum undersides. We wrapped our fingers around the gray branches and looked across the cotton field behind our neighborhood, held our hands to our brows.
     "Do you see the bandits?"
     "I see the tornadoes, that's for sure!"
     We were swept off together to a neighbor's house the night Kelsey was born. Kristen, afraid that we would never see our parents again, would not stop crying. Our neighbor carried her to a bathroom by the garage away from the rest of the bedrooms. She tucked Kristen into the bathtub with a blanket and pillow and shut the door. Kristen's howls rang off the tile walls. I waited for our neighbor to go back to her room, then slipped from the bed and followed Kristen's cries down the dark hallway to the bathroom. I crawled into the hard tub next to her. I was five and fit around her like a hand. I whispered that we were going to have another sister, the word itself a whisper or a loose strand of hair. Its root, Swesor, unchanging and recognizable in almost every modern language. Swe meaning "one's own" and ser meaning "woman." I told Kristen she could sneak away with me back down to the bedroom and lie with me in secret there if she could promise to be quiet. "We have to be so quiet." She didn't make a sound and followed me back down the hallway.

My parents named me Kathleen because they liked it. "The doctors told us we couldn't take you home until we named you," my mom says. "Your dad said ‘How about Kathleen?' and I said ‘okay.' I just wanted you home." My parents also liked the name Kristen and after her, they decided to stick with the letter K as either a first or middle initial. Then there was Kelsey, and Mary Katherine.
     The night my dad died we spread quilts on the floor of our parent's bedroom. My mom lay with us and we rolled up next to each other as if we were freezing, though it was June. The quilts smelled faintly of wood and underneath them of clean hair and skin. Dry skin. For all that heat, I don't remember sweating or the smell of salt. As though together we were waiting for the same fever to break.

When the ambulance arrives, the paramedics throw a wool blanket over Kristen's shoulders, over Laura's body, to protect them from debris as they saw through the Jeep's frame. Kristen speaks between the shrill blasts of blade against metal. More bursting glass. The dregs trickle down the surface of the blanket like drops of water. Underneath, she is soaked with sweat. It drips from her nose to the lobe of Laura's ear.
     "Where were you heading?"
     "Home. Where's my sister?"
     Kristen's ears are ringing. The silence between the high-pitched fractures replaced by an internalization of each breach, the widened "v" mouth-split open groan of metal from metal, an interlude of squealing lacerations. A refrain of fissures, disturbances, vibrations, pressure, roaring.
     "Where's my sister?" Laura says.
     "Someone else is taking care of her."

My sisters wave their arms in the snow like birds, though they insist they are angels. Their faces disappear behind the clouds of their breath then reappear, red and watery-eyed. Blue eyes, all four of us. We're hungry for snow that hasn't been touched. There is never more than one deep snow south of the canyons that split the panhandle of West Texas. Every pristine yard is a missed opportunity. Kelsey sits up and looks across our driveway to our neighbor's yard.
     "Let's go over there."
     "She won't like it," says Kristen. And then, as if our neighbor can hear her, Kelsey whispers, "Do you think she could tell?"
     "Of course she could tell."  You can hear Kristen's eyes roll when she talks. We watch the last of the snowfall like the end of a celebration on our neighbor's perfectly white yard. Kelsey springs to her feet and runs toward that bank of snow as if it's her last chance. Kristen sighs and takes after her. But it's because she wants to get in that snow, too. She wrestles Kelsey down. Mary Katherine looks at me and covers a laugh with her hand. Kristen once said that Mary Katherine has the best of each of us, but I think it's because we could see each of our own resemblance in her. We look for ourselves in one another. Our teeth, our eyebrows, our legs. The way we laugh or want to travel or stay home or rebel. And the parts of myself that I see in my sisters is not redeeming to them, but to me.
     Swesor  the sound our arms make in the snow. The sound of wings.

Kristen's ears are still ringing when the paramedics strap Laura to a stretcher and carry her to the ambulance. Laura asks the paramedics about her sister and they tell her that it's more important that she get stabilized.
     Her sister was pronounced dead-on-site.
     "Even if I had known that," Kristen says, "I wouldn't have told Laura."
     "I know," I say.

This is not my memory, this woman snared between the car seat and blown out window, as though she meant to follow her sister's egress. Air breezes through the empty window frame in her wake.
     Why not stick to more memories of my sisters? The youngest, Mary Katherine, four weeks early. Breathing through white tubes like antennae, her arms folded beside her ribs, wrapped in bright orange skin, the thin bones underneath, expanding and contracting.
     More about how the four of us grew up—four sisters without a father in the land of tornadoes, our own version of a fairytale.  The abandoned pair of splintered fence gates that we inclined against the birch of an apricot tree and deemed "the shelter." The blue metal bunk beds, and maybe something about the fights over claim to top bunk and bottom bunk. And later, fights over who got to park in the driveway and who in the street. More about the cracked Datsun key we found in the alley and pretended unlocked an alternate world, the one on the other side of the air conditioning unit, only when the fan was blowing, the motor enraged, chopping all the grass we fed it. The boys we kissed and ignored one another for. The ways we felt replaced. The plans we made to take a trip to New York together to shop in SoHo. To Paris. How my sisters helped me pack for Ohio, wedging the cardboard boxes into my car as tightly as they could, grunting and even laughing a little, then standing back and watching as I drove down eighteenth street, paused at each stop sign, and turned north.
     Or why not just talk about the wreck? Two sisters were traveling on highway 36. The one driving fell asleep. The jeep ran off-road. They were pulling a trailer.
     Then what happened?
     The jeep must have flipped. The trailer flung loose.
     Torque, force, gravity, speed, flight, seconds, stop.

Once at Christmas time, when I was five or six years old, I shattered a display tower of ornaments. I tried to turn the flimsy white column, my reflection playing back to me in blue, emerald, ruby, gold. When it fell, glass shards glittered across the white floor like confetti, reflecting nothing but light and my own bewilderment.
     The act of remembering is a kind of grief. It throws one off-balance. Scatters memories across the lake of the mind. 
     Imagining the wreck feels like an attempt to remember.
     It's a kind of homesickness, this glissade into imagination. Building radiant assertions, picking around flakes of glass adornments, examining the remains, trying to make sense of what they once were.

When Kristen comes to visit me now in Ohio, she tells the people she sits next to on the plane that she's going to Ohio to get her sister. "I'm bringing her home," she tells them.

We didn't know what to do when you left, my sisters tell me. And neither did I. I imagine over and over the woman named Laura with her head trapped between the car door and passenger seat asking where her sister was, if she could find her again. Asking "What have I done?"  Kristen tells me that there's a term called the mechanism of injury. If there is one event that causes enough injury to seriously harm one person, then any other individuals exposed to that same event, the same mechanism, are considered critical patients. 
     I've made a three-year commitment to Ohio, one that's invited comments from acquaintances and extended family members alike. "You finally spread your wings," they say. "Besides, three years is only a drop in the bucket. Just the blink of an eye."

In the dream, there's nothing but the sound of my sisters calling my name. It grows louder until it wakes me. I lie awake in my bedroom. The white curtains glow like candlelight. There's only the train that runs past my house in Ohio, its long blow the only sound.

Who were those two women in that Jeep last summer? There's a part of me that doesn't want to know any more than I already know. I want to fill in the gaps: Laura was moving and her sister was helping her. They'd finished packing the last of her household items, boxes marked "miscellaneous." Laura gave the house one more walk-through to make sure she hadn't left anything behind, to breathe in that house's smell. This was where she had ended up because of a job, a man, or other promises. Now she was going back to the city that she'd left years before when she was a younger woman, a woman who had fit into that place. How to return? Her sister, stood beside her, as she had for years. Her sister, in whom Laura had come to understand parts of herself.
     Laura's sister asked "Are you ready?"
     And if I can take the story this far, can't I go further, all the way to a different ending? Can't I say Laura wanted to be the one to drive? To feel, if she could, that distance between two places, and times, and versions of herself, and reconcile it all? Let's say she blinked. Then she opened her eyes. Her sister slept in the passenger side seat beside her and Laura continued to watch the highway dip and rise.
     She said, "It'll be fine." And it was.

In the dream, I am walking on the highway. There's a thunderstorm building in the Southwest ahead of me and I never make it back.

This morning, snow drifts into my yard. I think about putting a sign out for the kids on my street that says, "don't miss this one." 
     Kristen calls. "The only thing I don't like about Ohio," she says, "is that you're there."
     "That used to be my problem with it, too" I say.
     I wish I could show her my house here on the side of a small ravine. The steel gray bark of the American Beeches. The reach of the Evergreens. I want her to hear the train, the one that passes now. Sometimes I walk down the street and watch it race by. It's the first time I've ever lived so close to a train. I thought I'd be able to hear it coming, for minutes maybe. But I can't. Perhaps there are two birds on the telephone wire. An empty plastic bag drifts in the breeze behind them. Then the train howls. There's the singular light, its yellow eye.  Behind it, the train's dark body. The engine roars past and in the moment that follows, all other sound is washed up in the rush, the birds on the wire, the plastic bag in the wind, the refrains I carry. Even when I'm in my house, I look up from washing the dishes or petting my dog when I hear the train's blow. The wheel's rhythmic click and whine over the tracks. The sound calls me out my remembering, and I listen.

 

 

 


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I'm interested in taking a slice of my personal experience and juxtaposing it with something completely outside of that experience. There's an unsettled distinction for me between what I've never seen or experienced and what I can no longer see or experience. "Sisters" was the first essay where I explored that blur, the longing that can obscure the boundary between memory and imagination.