Elisabeth Benjamin

My sister leaves our house early; I watch her through my window. Before sunrise, I hear the door slam, and I'm up. Likely, she has waded into the pond, which she calls the lake, and she is naked because she thinks I'm sleeping. Through blue light I see her move away from the house. I get back in bed and dream of the next two days. Everything will be gone then.

My sister eats the leaves when she's done drinking tea. She saves them for last to be spooned out, like dessert. If her tea goes cold, she heats it on the stove, then drinks until it goes cold again. She doesn't strain out the tealeaves, and this is something that bothers me. She doesn't tell my fortune in the dregs, nor does she read her own. She just eats them.

My sister's body is like mine stretched out. Hipbones jut out, caging in her stomach. Shoulders round knobs, arms drip down into frond fingers. She has two inches on me, something worth quarreling about, though we should be past the age of quarreling about degrees of tallness, or of shortness in my case. As we grew she surpassed me, her long limbs and her natural wit. She became our parents' favorite girl, the pretty one, the spirited one.

My sister refuses to ask me to stay. Tomorrow I am moving from this house of ours. In the end, she will say Good Riddance, or Scram. The rain will greet me as I leave the house, and she will wait until I'm down the road before she strips and runs into the water. I'll hear the splash and keep walking. She wishes there were waves in the water, tides, but it's only a green pond.

My sister collects slides and projects them onto the living room wall. Vacationing families we've never met build sand castles and sleep open-mouthed in hammocks. We sightsee at another's safari, when we've never been to a zoo. Monochromatic lions loll in her stills, and we feel like part of it all. There are slides in our attic, of our family, but my sister isn't interested in those.

My sister is bored by laps, so she mostly moves in small circles, or she just splashes around a lot. She floats face down, looking for fish. She floats on her back, her feet slowly kicking to prevent her lower body from sinking. I'd like to see her from underwater, her cropped hair splayed out on the surface. I'd like to see the notches in her spine, have access to the vulnerability of a turned back.

My sister is concerned with color. "Ochre has outshone sepia," she says solemnly one morning over toast and butter, over eggs and applesauce, over oatmeal. She wears red and says, "Read my red," and I am to understand her temperament. She consumes color carefully: red-stalked chard, blueberries, pink grapefruit, golden mirabelles, rare meats, gelatin in primary colors.

My sister and I share familial features. I see the resemblances: the narrow faces and round eyes and straight long noses. Our bones are the same, but she wears her flesh right. She grows threads of golden hair. Something makes her delicately beautiful and me ordinary. She walks like she knows people. It's a combination of the things she is and the things I can't be, like I could never be a snail or leaves. I could never be like her.

My sister destroys this house our father built in anticipation of us. There are two bedrooms, theirs and ours, but I moved into their room after they left us. After we drove them away. When the roof needs fixing, or the house needs painting, my sister and I do the work ourselves. We contend with termites and storms. Raccoons tore off the gutters last year trying to take refuge from winter in our attic.

My sister asks, "Why are you leaving?" and I say, "I am too old for this funhouse." I tug at the puppy-print curtains. I'm sick of spectacles. Leaving for my room, I kick through mangled toys, torn books, dented kettles, broken glass, buttons. My room bears deliberate cleanliness. The rest of the house is my sister's: the bathroom where our mother once dipped locks of our hair in warm water and rolled them up in old baby socks, the muddy cellar.

My sister is twenty-three and I am twenty-six. For years I was her pleasant paper doll. She dressed me up and colored my face with oil pastels. With pinned lengths of fabric, she wrapped my shapeless body into something unrecognizable. She agreed with my compliance and silence, and then I grew up and became an unruly plaything. I ripped through seams and tugged at pins until she despised me.

My sister says, "Your assortment of browns has prolonged fall unnecessarily. You insist on honoring the dying, on disturbing nature and its seasons." I look down at my shades of browns, which match my hair and freckled skin. She's right: I'm drab and depressing to look at, but we rarely leave our property anymore. She acts as if the chickens are disapproving of my creased plainness, while applauding her unkempt grace.

My sister hears me say, "Would you like to make slides from our adventures?" but she stares silently at the wall's landscape. "I can take pictures as you ride your bike into the pond," I say. She says, "That's not an adventure. We have never been on an adventure." I ask her what she would call tightrope walking, or squirrel catching, or squid hacking, and she says, "Boring." Glancing up at me, she flinches with what I understand as contempt.

My sister drapes herself with antique jewelry, our mother's forsaken bangles, things from our grandmother's trunk. She dumps out the tackle boxes and clips the barbs off of our father's flashiest fishing lures, fashioning gruesome broaches. She scales herself in sparkles, fastening anything shiny to herself. Swathes of sequins and shards of colored glass pile up. She is a tropical fish; I am a shipwreck.

My sister makes decisions based on how things look. Once I saw a man kiss her, so deeply, like he was drinking from a well of nectar, like the thirstiest man in the world. I was up in the window again; they were on the front walk. As he kissed her, she went limp, her eyes open and lazy, bored during her first kiss. She came into the house humming a slow sad song. We have so few interactions with outsiders.

My sister eats small servings off of saucers. I say, "The saucers are for the teacups," and she smashes a saucer on the floor. Bits of our mother's abandoned porcelain dance into the corners of the kitchen. Whatever she eats, little cairns of sunflower seeds and raisins, sticks to the bottoms of our shoes and leaves the floor that way. We track them outside and into our beds and the hamper. They eventually disappear; I sweep up the saucer remains a few months later.

My sister won't ask where I'm going. But if she did, I would tell her this: "I'm leaving this place for somewhere by the sea." If she asks where I got the money, I will say, "Mom and Dad sent it to me and said to keep it from you." These are both lies; she will recognize them. I don't have money to get to the seashore, and we haven't heard from our parents since we were teenagers. But they're the only soft spot left, for me at least.

My sister and I were fifteen and eighteen when our parents disappeared. The day before I had planned a successful attack, one in a series of jokes, trapping our mother in the cellar with her rainbow of preserves. My sister was the one to keep the door closed for too long; our father came home and released his wife. They took very little with them, probably only a suitcase each. They fled from this house and from us.

My sister runs from the house to the pond in her birthday suit, and I forget what kind of a person she is. She's the kind of person who licks the last cupcake but won't eat it. Who pitches the last jar of preserves off the roof, just to hear the sound of breaking. Who kicks hens. My sister is wonderful and despicable. I love her, but I lock my bedroom door at night.

My sister's name is Gretchen, and mine is Robin. Our names aren't used much because we've been the only ones here for so long. There's no confusion about who we're addressing because there's no one here but us. I sometimes write her little notes, and she scratches through her name, writing ‘you' above it. She hasn't spoken my name in years; however, she greets the birds outside, calling them all robins regardless of species.

My sister is wet and holding something. By the sink, I'm washing my traveling clothes. Her hand clenched tight and dripping, she plunges her fist into the laundry water. We watch black tendrils seep out between her fingers. The water turns gray and opaque and my clothes gather sediment. She strolls out the back door and I see her dive off the dock into the pond. Surfacing, she has one arm in the air, black scum dripping down her wiry arm.

My sister hasn't mentioned my packing. I'm taking the medium-sized leather case from the attic. The leather is damaged from moisture and dust, so I'll spend part of the day seasoning it with oil from the kitchen. I'm packing some clothes and a few books. No trinkets, memorabilia, or items laden with nostalgia. My sister and I are not sentimental people.

My sister's antics demand difficult decisions. As she heads back toward the house, I think: Shall I lock the door and watch as she smears a handful of muck down the window? She will make the most horrible face at me, a face that says, Why are you doing this to me? and I'll open the door for her and face her wrath. Or I let her continue filling the sink with mud, soiling my best clothes, until I have nothing nice to pack. I sit at the kitchen table and wait it out.

My sister doesn't find me interesting, and I think she's crazy. She clips her toenails while I'm in the room. She exhales audibly as I am enjoying the quiet. She paces over creaky floorboards. When she says a little bit, she means a lot. My sister circles her bruises in ballpoint pen. She pokes my bruises with a long finger. In the two weeks she's known that I'm leaving, she has not asked where I'm going.

My sister likes nothing more than a brick wall behind a window. She saw a photograph of this once in an old magazine. The wood frame exposing nothing. A glassless, lightless window to nowhere at all. She places empty picture frames on the wall to simulate a bricky window. "What's that?" I say. "Oh, that's a picture of our wallpaper," she says, then she laughs herself sick. Each room has these vacant frames.

My sister swims. I watch her catch fish with our father's old pole. She throws the small ones over the little embankment, something she read about controlling the population and the size. Maybe we'll have catfish for dinner. Bare-footed, mud-slippered, she comes into the kitchen and slaps a few fish onto the counter. They're still flopping and I take an ice pick to their brains. I gut them into the sink. My sister watches but doesn't help.

My sister and I live on twenty acres of fruit trees. I keep a garden in the summer, and I can whatever we have left. I can cherries and tomatoes and strawberries and pears. We sell peaches. She doesn't help with the garden, but she tends to our chickens because she likes them personally. If she didn't feel that way about them, she would neglect them completely, like cleaning or combing her hair or our parents.

My sister is long and lovely, but she would not be nearly so lovely if I didn't care for her. I trim her hair and wash her clothes. She likes having her hair tugged, so I lace my fingers through her tangles and I cup her scalp and tug. Harder, she says, but it always feels like her roots will give out, and I ease up. I give her a short spiky cut because she's like an unruly child.

My sister tires of filling the sink with mud. I draw a new basin of water and rewash my things. She stands outside watching me through the window. I study her face, her nose lightly touching the glass. I see no remorse. These staring contests, trying to see ourselves in the other sister, I will miss. Right now, in her face I see nothing. Not our mother, not myself. It's just a face, which will blink soon, which will turn and move toward the pond.

My sister built a brick wall over the window of the downstairs bathroom. Days of hauling bricks and mixing cement and slapping them together like so many lopsided sandwiches. The project brought her many hours of good spirits. She wore yellow for days afterward, indicating general cheerfulness. We keep the pale blue lace curtains over the window, which she says increase the magnificence of the brick-walled window.

My sister and I celebrated our liberation from parents. I disguised my sadness with whoops and streamers; we marched around the property waving our underwear on broom handles. We considered ourselves castaways, victims of providential mutiny. My sister draped the house in colorful fabrics, covering pictures, the piano, chandeliers. I baked cherry pies for dinner. Now we use our father's shirts as dust cloths. I sold most of our mother's things.

My sister swims early, then comes in and flips on the projector. The couch holds her wetness like a shadow. She curls up in the same spot, next to the projector and the box of slides. She moves slowly, taking time to memorize scenes and faces. I come down to find her in her towel and I sit close to her. I lean in and sometimes she puts her head on my shoulder. I know if I move she'll get up, so I breathe slowly and quietly. Soon, we eat oatmeal and sausage.

My sister only cares for summer. She swims past fall and ends up with an annual November chest cold, which signifies winter. In winter she walks on ice. We've lived here so long, but memories of winter are always erased by warm months. In winter my sister can't get warm. I ache watching her shiver, but I can't get her to bundle up. I never remember what we eat or when we sleep in winter: It's all summers around here.

My sister has a star-shaped scar on her wrist, the size of a penny. It's a foggy white stain over blue veins. She bends her hand back, stretching the skin of her wrist, and admires her star. I don't understand such homage paid to an old wound, but I guess it might be different if I had a star shape to remember. I wonder if she knows its origin, the little scrape that came from the dock, the infection, the picking. I bet she doesn't remember.

My sister scatters her chickens. She tries leashing one to thin rope; she tries to walk chickens to town. In town they stare at us. My sister is disheveled, but mostly we look like regular people. Once, when asked the whereabouts of our parents, my sister said, "We hated them so much that they vanished." As she said this she demonstrated their disappearance by slowly drawing together her thumb and pointer, the pads of her fingers pinched tight, like: Poof!

My sister and I gig frogs around the perimeter of the pond. Frogging. With headlamps and stakes we stalk and stab, mercilessly. When I get a frog, I hand its twisted body to my sister, she removes its legs and adds them to her collection. She wears a wicker basket at her hip. It's brutal business, but it's dark. She will cook them up the way our father used to. This is the only cooking she does. I doubt she'll cook anything once I'm gone.

My sister and I have the same birthday. This unlikely probability caused many childhood quarrels, but now we've resolved to an unspoken treaty of forgetful, birthdayless years, which is better than aging anyway. However, this year I found in an antique shop in town a box of old slides, decades of a family's memories, three continents, four births, two new houses and a death. She kicked me for not telling her it was our birthdays, but she loved the gift.

My sister's star-shaped scar, wrists, her dry, gray elbows. My sister's cropped gold hair, her pink scalp exposed. She refuses to wear sun block. She shuns block. Constantly shedding, her pink skin peels layer after layer, until all that's left is thin brown limbs, taut polished bends, cheekbones. I ask so little. I'm always telling her to brush her teeth, like a child she must be reminded. I'm tired of telling her.

My sister hates her name because it's Gretchen. When we were children, she would curse our parents for naming her something so ugly. I would say it was our grandmother's name, and Gretchen would say, "Our grandmother was a hag," even though we never met her. Hers is a face scratched off of family pictures. My sister's name is elegant and classic. A Robin is a plain bird, especially a female robin, which is small and brown. Gretchen means little pearl.

My sister sits on my bed in a rare moment as I fold clothes and stack them in my suitcase. She watches me but when I glance up, she pretends to look out the dark window. She says, "Do you wish they had stayed?" and I have no answer for her. She's asking if I blame her and if that's why I'm going. I imagine her asking if she can join me tomorrow, and I imagine telling her no. She's sitting still, waiting for an answer that I will not give.

My sister ignores me for days after I tell her. We eat separately and she swims while I make lists of things to do before I leave. From the desk in my room I can see her; she consciously manipulates shadows, her eyes to surfaces. It's too bright out for her to look at anything else, so she watches shadows as intently as her slides. Later she swims, eyes closed, feeling the heat, seeing red through her eyelids, knowing I'm in the window watching.

My sister's lovely. I am a robin living with a pearl, and birds like sparkles. She tells me to leave her alone, to stop picking. She tells me she's an adult. She says, "I can take care of my own teeth," except she doesn't. Sometimes she leaves in the morning and doesn't return until after dark. I don't mention it, but I wonder where she goes. I picture her sleeping in trees, digging, chasing animals. I wonder what she's hidden.

My sister scratches our family out of old slides. She says familiar images are useless. With a penknife she scrapes at them, carving a void into pictures of the farm. Empty tree swings. Vacant canoes. Mystery shoes. I worry about my sister. I'm accustomed to her behavior, but our parents found it alarming. But, they left me too, both of us. There's something about me they wanted to leave behind. I wasn't in on their escape.

My sister will behave as if I never existed. I'll hear the splash on my way out, and the instant she hits the water, she'll forget, like she forgot our parents. As if our mother never painted her nails pink. As if our father never sang songs or fried fish. We all played jacks together, raced across the pond, cupped lightning bugs and left them in glass jars—later in wood and mesh boxes built by our father. When I leave it will be like this, this forgetting.

My sister has gone to bed later than usual after watching me pack. Perhaps she wanted to be near me some my last night here. She probably thinks I'll never visit. Knowing she's asleep helps me think. I don't know where I'm going tomorrow; I just know it's time to leave. It's almost fall, and I'm almost twenty-seven. In the morning I will kiss her on the forehead, the way our mother did, then I'll walk to the train station, see where it's going and go.

My sister's hair, tangled, matted, hopeless. I wish I had pictures of it all. Of her swimming through blue light, through fog. Nothing will be left tomorrow, this house is ours. It was never our parents'; he built it in anticipation of us. Maybe this was their plan all along. I would project them on the wall of wherever I end up. Mother's confusion and dark lips, father's plaid, the garden. Gretchen pressed against the window, staring in at me.

My sister has filled the sink, handful by handful, with muck that has displaced soapy water. Water overflows onto the wood floor. My sister's picture frame installation is a tribute to our parents, as if the pictures' inhabitants fled along with them. My sister slides her hand under a frame and waves at me through space. She fills the sink, and this will prevent me from leaving? My sister refuses to ask me to stay, to ask me where I'm going.

My sister leaves. It's morning and I'm searching for her. I'm trying to say goodbye. As I go downstairs, I hear the purr of the slide projector, and I expect to find her warming her fine hands over its humming heat. She's gone, of course. I search the house, the pond, the shed for her. I turn her room inside out. No note, no trace of a departure, just a black and white image of Honolulu on the wall. My suitcase floats in the pond, the remnant of castaway sisters.



This story is best accompanied by the musical saw.