Suzanne Burns

"Siblings" is the 2013 DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Contest winner, selected by judge Ben Marcus, who had this to say about the story:

Suzanne Burns has perfectly captured the powerful strangeness of childhood, the fear and joy and weird rituals we invent to work out our place in the world. She is a visionary poet, with an imagination I'd kill for, and in "Siblings" she's written a piece of otherworldly, mythic sorrow.


My brother believes caramel is the only thing a girl like me should suck on before sleep. Each night when our parents reduce themselves to dreams he lodges a candy between my teeth.
     "Bite down and this sugar will make you feel relieved to be alone in this world," he says, "then you will understand there will come a time when it will be you without me."



I lose the red book with the gold pages he gave me to record a melody of unnamed things: flowers, birds, the way I suckle the corners of his mouth when he sleeps. My brother smells like heavy cream and the epiphany of homemade bread.
     When there is only enough for one of us Mother feeds him from a silver tray. I plug my ears but still hear the rhythm of silver harmonies rattling his silver plate.



The dog swallows its tail on nights like these. There is no spoon for the dish to run away with. Father chops off his favorite finger with an axe then sews it back on before dessert. He asks me to hold the needle and says, "Look how angry you make me."



I kiss Father's finger. He collects my tears to wax his sewing thread.
     "My blood is nothing like yours," he says.
     My brother corrals the spiders into a circle on our bed. The forest sends them our way with their quick legs and their black eyes. Sometimes we coax them into jewelry...an earring, a ring. They stop gathering around us the first night I bleed.
     "Your blood is nothing like ours," they whisper.
     My brother brushes his finger between my legs and presses a red thumbprint on my pillow. He says, "This will save us both, someday."



My brother sends a telegram into the woods. To Whom it May Concern, Dear John, Once Upon a Time, that sort of thing. He tells me at night how he wants to make love to a landlocked mermaid, become a new stereotype on reality TV. But he is the son of a woodsman, handsome before cable and electricity.
     I ask Mother to tie my legs together with ribbons. I ask Mother to save the fish bones from dinner.
     My brother calls me an imposter when I tell him I have oceans in my body just waiting to be released. That when I sleep I dream about building a boat to sail across my own sea.



Mother polishes the copper pot until her hands tear open. I wait to see small red birds climb out of her bones, offer bandages as an excuse to lean in and see what she looks like turned inside out.



We are becoming a family of skeletons. We set our starving thoughts next to each other on the mantel, a row of hungry puppets.
     A masquerade at dinnertime, Father's puppet resonates to the tune of biscuits. It dances off the mantel and falls into the fire.
     Mother's puppet fantasizes about turning water into candy.
     My brother's puppet commands Mother's puppet to, "Shut your Goddamn mouth!"
     My puppet collects all the other puppets, even Father's charred stuffing and string, and arranges each little body on its corresponding dinner plate.
     Tonight we will all be eating our words. See which one of us fills up first.



I know how it feels to fall apart without any directions to find my way back. My brother holds the missing piece. He carries it with him like a gold watch or a smooth white pebble or even the tiniest morsel of leftover meat, something substantial enough to force a hole in every pocket. This missing piece of me always tries to crawl away when he sleeps. To say it is my heart would be too easy. To say it is my soul would sound too much like a soap opera or a greeting card. To say it is the only piece of me that counts sounds close to the truth so let's keep lying.



Father chops down his very last tree. There is no soliloquy when he does this. The forest does not turn to sand, just the absence of the color green. Too many people in too many places want tables and toothpicks and even Popsicle sticks in other lands where summer means bikini tans and pool parties.
     Father places his axe inside a wooden box he carved from his very last tree
because he knew the end was coming. He already cut enough wood to make the table the box will sit on and the chairs the table needs to look complete and the floor the table stands on and the house the table lives in and the paper to make invitations telling everyone to set down their Popsicles and toothpicks and come see.



"Do they really freeze water on sticks then place them on their tongues?" I ask my brother when we go to fetch water at the edge of our woods, though there are no more woods.
     A large piece of black material unfolds in front of us as we walk, just out of reach but we always reach.



My brother says the fabric is not really fabric, the black bolt unfolding in front of us an imaginary cloak to hide what remains.
     "But this is really the moon," he says.
     He dangles a piece of paper from a string, holding it in front of us as we walk. If I stare too long at the brown paper I almost see stars.



"If Father or Mother catch you wishing on them they will murder us," he says.
     "Because the people who forget how to dream always kill the dreamers."



Mother and Father try to grow a fruit tree from one of my brother's loose teeth. (the string, the doorknob, the brutal slam) But his teeth only grow more teeth until at night during supper Mother counts four hundred mouths to feed.
     A bowl of broth split four hundred ways.
     The teeth eat my parents out of house and home then dare to smile as they pick themselves clean.



Father tries to grow a lamb from a lock of my hair, that solitary blonde curl right in the middle of my forehead prized by good girls in other fairytales. The ones who luck out with woodsmen who cross-train and drink Muscle Milk, always ready to pull women out of wolves, retire red caps for engagement rings, retrofit glass slippers.
     I want to be the good girl in this fairytale. By default I am so far the only girl in this fairytale.
     A witch is coming later, but you knew that.



Am I good enough to summon a young wooly sheep from my DNA?
     When Mother buries my lock of hair in a shallow grave all that grows is more hair, so much Father sharpens his scissors all afternoon but Mother cannot decide where to start cutting.



The day before they send us away one of them blames the hair. The other blames the teeth.
     My brother collects my tears and places them in his pocket, a dozen white stars that sparkle each time he dangles his paper moon close.



I remember the day my mother lost her body.
     How it floated in the sky,
     demanding things it shouldn't know about like Oysters Rockefeller (she insisted her parsley be fresh) and Baked Alaska (she could spend all day contemplating meringue).
     Her body knew these recipes the way a tattoo always knows which skin it belongs to and even dreamers know paper moons sailing over cardboard seas can only last as long as the believer agrees in the contract of make-believe.



A Treatise on Packing

Packing is important. Proper packing separates us from the animals. Proper packing separates us from Mother and Father.
     "Will proper packing separate you from me?" I ask.
     "Only if you want it to."
     "Why would I ever want that?"
     "Because someday you will feel all alone in the world even when I am standing right beside you."



My brother folds my favorite apron into a knapsack then adds our two favorite spiders, a pink feather, Mother's recipe for cocktail sauce and both of our hungry puppets.
     "Your puppet is eating our luggage!" I yell.
     My brother slaps his wooden likeness on the back of its wooden head until all its wooden teeth fall to the ground. When I pick one up, it bites me.
     He says, "See what you get for never listening?"
     "But I listen all the time!"
     "Then what did I just say?"
     "I have no idea."
     (I never do.)



The morning they send us away my brother tells me to ignore Mother's tears.
     He says, "She is a phony, like all the others." He kicks her tears out of our way and keeps walking. "Mother could have made soup from those. Or bread. Other mothers in other fairytales feed their children. Every night. They even send tea and cake to all the grandmothers. It is manners, the picnic basket, the wildflower bouquet, the jug of wine before the Surgeon General warned everyone about birth defects."
     "What if we get lost without her tears?" I ask. "What if we could use them for a map?"
     He answers, "There is nowhere they could tell us to go that would be better than being together."



Lunchtime without lunch in a fairytale is like Cinderella outgrowing her glass slipper or Little Red Riding Hood ignoring her grandmother to fondle the wolf on a dark forest path because when she squints he almost looks safe.
     Lunchtime without lunch in a fairytale means watching my brother untie our knapsack to let our spiders go and the pink feather blow away.
     "Maybe we should follow it?" I ask.
     "Nothing good ever came from paying attention to pink things," he says.
     "But I am pink under my dress! I am sweet as a donut and almost as soft."
     "See what I mean," my brother says. "See..."



Lunchtime without lunch in a fairytale means sharing the last piece of gum. At first I just taste peppermint. I remember December snow, that Christmas Ma and Pa gave us each a red-striped stick, a tin cup, a penny before my brother reminds me (he always reminds me) that is a story another girl will write in a land where people watch TV instead of looking at each other.
     He already knows how each time we are alone my mouth wonders about his mouth.
     When I pass the gum to my brother my lips follow.



Our first night in the forest feels like sleeping on the edge of an ice floe. I wish I knew about snow cones. I hope my brother invents them someday, rainbow striped like he promised and tasting of all the fruits we have never seen.
     The ground is so cold the animals freeze inside their dreams. The mushrooms wither (even the ones we are forbidden to eat).
     None of the fallen leaves feel soft enough for sleep.



Under the tallest tree my brother slices open his chest.
     "Just this once, my sister, come sleep inside me."
     "Where are the breadcrumbs and the blackbirds and the path?" I ask. "This is not how I remember it. This is not the story you told me."



In the morning I wipe his blood from my chest, my face. The water from the creek is too cold so he spreads his warmth back over me.



"I think I dreamed of you before you were born," I say. "Tea parties. Record players.
     You gave me a locket that holds a painting of you giving me a locket. You fed me cupcakes from a small pink box with a tiny silver spoon. You called the flavor "chocolate" and told me never to forget how it loosened my tongue. ‘You never stutter with something sweet to suck on,' you said, ‘even if it is only a word.'"



"You did not exist before I was born," he says. "We are twins. How could you forget?"
     (He never lets me forget.)
     "But I dreamed of you before you dreamed of me. You taught me how to dance. You taught me not to whimper when birds fly too close. You taught me not to scratch your records."



He says, "Are you only saying all of these things because you know the witch is coming?"
     "I don't want to talk about her. Why do we have to keep on talking about her?"
     "Because she is on the next line."



In this story there is no path. The next person who writes this will add the path back in.
      My brother calls that editing.



In this version my brother's paper moon replaces the path.
     There are always birds. That part can't really be helped. I have been waiting this whole time to drop breadcrumbs. I practiced for years with scavenged crusts until my arm could invent the Olympics, its precise arc, its measured scatter.
     You could map countries with my accuracy.
     The next person who writes this I will ask to crown me Queen of Path Making and Crumb Scattering. I will even wear a crown to bed.



"I have never kissed you," he says, "because you are the kind of girl who wants to wear a crown to bed...and you are my sister."



"The time is soon coming when it will be you without me," he says.
     Then my brother refolds our knapsack while I gather mushrooms for breakfast. Pretending they are sweet makes them taste better, even with a fat cricket waiting like a cherry on top.
     We decide to torture the bugs because we can. I tear the hem form my dress
and sew each insect an outfit to match ours.
     "Just don't call them siblings," my brother commands. "Everyone will see that one coming."



This is our last afternoon to play together.
     We hang my brother's paper moon from the city we created. The crickets hop off wearing our clothes. Maybe someday they will figure out how to undress each other and go back to being themselves.
     A policeman flashes his tiny lights at a tiny woman who crosses the street before her turn. She wears a red dress I made from my mother's blood.
     "The blood flows around her like a song," my brother says.



I say, "This is sounding too much like a dream and not enough like playing."
     "Do you want to pull the legs off those crickets now?" he asks.       



"They died too quick to suffer. That was no fun at all," I say.
     "Don't worry," he answers, "heartbreak is coming in ways too terrifying to name. We will be turning against each other sooner than you think."
     "I will never turn against you," I say.
     "But look, you already have."



We send out invitations to the funeral: formal dress optional.
     My brother arranges the dismembered bodies in two matching caskets. I take photos of the crickets, their thousand eyes fixed on a point of light none of us can see.
     They wear black satin. Everyone wears black satin.
     "You didn't tell me you packed our mourning clothes?" I say.
     He answers, "But we are always mourning something."



No one bakes cupcakes for the funeral or serves punch. No one speaks or folds up the flag, though one of the crickets was a veteran in a war too painful to acknowledge.
     It involved his heart.
     A rejected valentine.
     A pretty red design torn five times.



"Why don't we make a disguise for our next game?" I say.
     I dress my brother like a spy.
     I wear the clothes of a wolf. Not the big, bad one but close. All afternoon I hide in the trees and he finds me every time.
     I say, "How about for our next game we turn away from here and go live at the edge of a different forest?"
     "Because she would find us every time," he says.
     "How is that possible?"
     "Because you are the witch!"
     "I don't believe you!"
     "You never do..."



"Will you please kiss me?" I ask
     "Because I have never been kissed."
     "Me neither."
     "I wonder if it will feel the way violets feel when I watch you crush them between your fingers? Your fingers never turn purple."
     "Well," he says, "maybe if we kiss my lips will turn purple?"
     "In fairytales a handsome prince will be waiting with a shoe made just for me," I say. "And a first kiss the color of sucked candy, more red than pink, more pink than red."
     He says, "But this is a fairytale? Did you forget?"



Other girls in fairytales get glass shoes they call slippers, they are so fancy, and blonde men who have all the right muscles without even trying and mothers who name them after colors and seasons and fathers who don't send them away and brothers who don't pull the legs off crickets just because the girls ask.



Other girls in fairytales follow a path in a black forest until they see a house made of gingerbread and a witch inside who only acts bad when she is hungry.
     But she is always hungry...



"And quit stalling," he says, "we're here. It's just like you left it the last time you murdered me."



A Treatise on Gingerbread

First of all, I am no more a witch than anyone. It just happens sometimes. None of us ever sees it coming and then it is way too late. The sacrifice. The unholy offerings. The rule about killing that which you love most.
     Second, the house doesn't look anything like what you think. Forget your assumptions. Drop the preconceived notions about the feat of gingerbread trusses and chocolate cake construction.
     And it isn't stale, exactly, and is the finest, and probably the only house I have ever seen built from sugar.
     It's just, I mean...I always feel full so fast.
     The frosting window trim, the gumdrop detail. The vanilla wafer bat and board...but in other fairytales they forget to mention the bugs, everything pretending to be so sanitary all the time.
     This house crawls with worms. This house doesn't nourish anyone. This house is poison.
     This house is the house no one can stop eating. The doorbell is a butterscotch button.
     But the woman who lives inside...the woman who lives inside, the woman I become when I step inside, she is exactly how you thought she would be only much, much worse.



"Quit stalling quit stalling quit stalling quit stalling quit stalling...eat!" my brother says.
     "She demands it. You demand it, and we have both been so very hungry for so very long."



My brother sticks his tongue deep inside a gulley of pink icing that holds tight the corner of one window eave. His tongue wiggles the way all the worms wiggle at my feet.



     I want to taste flavors new to me. This is the point in the story where I need to convince you that everything is new to me.
     Tangerine buttercream, cardamom with its smell of grass and spice.
     Something called red velvet, redder than the reddest red.
     My brother knows what is coming.
      "Come here," he says, "and let's make your dress."
     I say, "But why are you helping me if I am only going to hurt you in the end?"
     "Because that's what love is."
     "I thought love was kisses and cupcakes?"
     "Not exactly," he says.



He cuts three slabs of red velvet cake off the side of the house and measures my chest and waist.
     Wearing the dress, stitched together with thin black licorice, makes me feel like an overly sweet guest crashing my own party. The birds stop picking at worms. They look as impressed as any bird can.
     No more, no less.
     The worms pull away from the witch's house, my fairytale house, to crawl up my legs. My brother holds his hands to his face and pretends to snap pictures like I am the forest celebrity. He pretends to interview me for the paper. He pretends to like the way I twirl across the front porch.
     He pretends to want to kiss me and I almost, just this once, believe it.



All night we sleep inside the sweet house. My brother sticks his hand under my red velvet dress to pat my belly.
     "I told you not to eat all that cake," he says.
     "Which cake? My stomach hurts."
     "The one with the yellow flowers that said Welcome Home! but misspelled both of our names. How hard is it to get that right?"
     "I guess harder than we think."
     "Remember last night how we barged right in? How we ate the marzipan flowers around the front door?"
     "Around my front door, you mean?"
     "Yes and you know what I mean. We ate the sponge cake, which reminded you of Mother's best crinoline dress. The one she said came from Overseas in a trunk of silk fans and old valentines."



We then decided to eat my dress in great handfuls because for that moment we remembered we are only children.



She wasn't as ugly as everyone says, this witch who lives inside the house made of cake.
     This witch who lives inside me.
     We all have a monster who waits beneath our skin. And I am not dumb, you know. It's not like the inside of the house doesn't have real walls and a spoon rack and a thimble collection and a flush toilet and magazines and heart medicine in a brown pill bottle and a fireplace, though the fireplace burns marshmallows, and a recipe book in the kitchen forever turned to the page that says:



"I knew you wanted to hurt me," he says.
     "It's not like it's on purpose."
     "I knew you wanted to hurt me," he says.



A Treatise on Siblings

It's hard when he is the only thing I have. He scares away every woodsman and tall blonde prince. He told the seven dwarves to whistle in some other forest far away from me.
     My brother even drowned the goose that laid the golden eggs so I wouldn't get spoiled. He cracked the glass shoe. He put weevils in Mother's flour jar to spoil our food so she had to send us away.
     And he still won't kiss me. He won't hold my hand, even when we sleep. He tells me brothers don't do those kinds of things but each time I ask him why, he can never give me the answer.



"And why do you lick your lips when I wear a dress made of red cake?"
     "Because this is the last time you will ever look sweet."



I want to murder everyone. Whenever I see water I want to jump in it and drown.
     Whenever I see a cake I want to eat until I get sick. Whenever I see her coming I want to know what it will really feel like to be me without you.



We pretend to play gin rummy with the witch. She pours a drink for every hand she wins, for every hand I win.
     The house smells like a sweeter version of our defeat. My brother tries to frame it, or banish it to the other side of the forest where Mother and Father have gotten divorced.
     She invented somewhere to move called Florida.
     Father invented anti-depressants then refused to take them. He blames everything on the forest disappearing, though he made it disappear.
     The witch feeds us more cake, I feed us more cake, then puts us to bed in separate cages. I never thought I would dream of finally being without him but when there is nothing else there is nothing else.



My brother asks me, "Is it too late to mention the rabbits?"
     "It is never too late to mention the rabbits."
     They followed us here. They follow us everywhere. They take notes. They touch each other. They refuse all pastry except carrot cake.
     "Do they report back to Mother and Father?" I ask.
     "Yes, they are the real spies."
     "Our parents always knew they were sending us to her, I mean, sending you to me, I mean?"
     "Who do you think, my sister, is writing this story?"



Our cages share a row of bars formed from metal, not peppermints.
     Nothing in here is edible.
     Nothing in here is touchable except the leftover crumbs of my red velvet dress. At night my brother crushes my sleeves between his fingers when he thinks I am sleeping.
     I am never sleeping.



A Treatise on the Chicken Bone, Part 1

I knew you were all waiting for this part, snickering to each other until even the dogs started to howl. Yes Mother, yes Father, I hear you above all the others who laugh at how siblings have never really loved each other the way they say.
     The same parent is not enough.
     The same blood is not enough.
     Even the same face is not enough.
     Loyalty only blossoms at night in a dark forest, that same bolt of black fabric, when your brother holds a paper moon in front of your face to comfort you and for that moment you belong to him, or you belong, more importantly, to each other before he snatches the paper moon out of your hands and warns you how other boys will come along before either of you see it coming.
     But that is not my fault.
     They can smell your blood before you can. Some will be blonde. Some will be dark, and for every moment they spend alone with you, they will think for that moment that they know you, that they possess you, that they understand you even better than you understand yourself.
     In that moment when they are alone with you they call out to you without saying a word. And you will follow their commands, climb into a wolf's mouth just because they ask, and you will forget about a boy with your face who once held out a paper moon so you could touch all the stars that crackled close by.



A Treatise on the Chicken Bone, Part 2

Oh yes, the bone. There is no way either a seasoned witch who can orchestrate sugar and flour into a house or a little girl would fall for substituting an arm for a chicken bone.
     Just like there is no way I would ever pick another man over my brother, right?
     Isn't this all just make-believe? Don't we have to get up and go to school in the morning? Don't we have to get drunk in college then get real jobs then learn how to make our Mother's Thanksgiving turkey dinner then learn how to make a better version of our own?
     Or don't we at least go back to our cabin in the woods, with no more woods, and fall asleep in the same bed waiting to grab at our sugarplum dreams?
     Or don't we at least find our way back to the drafty house, fireplace embers long grown cold, with nothing to look forward to but cabbage soup in the morning garnished with Mother's tears?
     The only chicken bone will be the one rattling around outside in the chicken yard.



"But if there are chickens to eat why are we always sent away at the first sign of trouble?
     And how will the blood between my legs ever save us?"
     "Because Mother only serves meat to Father and someday a rich prince will bugle at the smell of your blood, long to taste it the way I have tasted all of you without ever having to ask."



"Enough, dear brother, of this nonsense talk. You are trying to trip me up. At twelve minutes a pound you will need to hop out of this cage and into the oven and cook straight through til morning. Did you see where I left all those carrots and potatoes last time? And the seasoning? At least the salt?"
     "But," he says in his cage close to mine, "we have to get home and crawl into bed before they notice us missing."



I ask, "Can we take them each their very own cake? This one says Mother. This one says Father. This one says Family."
     "You ask me the same question every single night," he says.
     "I do?"
     "Yes, you do."



In the morning we let each other out of our cages. My red velvet dress is almost gone. Blood pools between my legs but I am not hurt.
     Not like that.
     "It is normal," he says.
     It is tidal, he promises. It will usher in a wave of suitors with more chickens than Father could ever count and more cake than some made-up witch could raise and bake and more moons, made of better things like diamonds and Camembert.
     "These made-up fairytale princes will call you all the made-up baby names that make you do things like let them see you without your clothes and polish their crowns until your own hands tear open but I will not be allowed to wait and see what you look like turned inside out."



"I will be sent away at your wedding because every prince will know how I loved you first."
     "Then I will mail you big envelopes of diamonds and even bigger boxes of cheese and we will write letters the rabbits will bring to us, this time signed with real kisses and you will only hate me sometimes late at night when there are no stars because whichever moon my new prince set into our sky will be too bright to sleep under."
     "Yes, I may hate you some nights."
     "For the whole night," I ask, "or just until morning?"



"I don't know. I haven't decided. But the first night I hate you won't be for many nights. For now we should quit telling each other all these silly stories and seek out a little sleep."
     My brother tucks a caramel between my waiting teeth. He believes this sugar is the only thing a girl like me should suck on before sleep.
     "Bite down and this sugar will make you feel relieved to be alone in this world," he says, "then you will understand there will always, yes, always, come a time when it will be you without me."



This piece, written in one fevered sitting, is inspired by the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, and a winter bout with the flu, which culminated in a marathon of back-to-back Brady Bunch episodes intermixed with a documentary on the Manson Family. My childhood dream was to live with a twin brother in a house made entirely from cake, with no rules except to always be hungry and never say no to any game the other suggested.