A STORY FOR MY SISTER
I should have known something was changing, and maybe I knew it deep down in a half-serious way that made me nervous and giddy all the time. There was something about how the already narrow streets seemed to be squeezing in on both sides, and the sky felt like a low grey ceiling, and the mountains in the distance like a wall, and the constant itchy restlessness we felt under our school clothes, like we were made of a million tiny little parts that all wanted to pull in seperate directions. We talked about leaving all the time, in the overly dramatic way of people making a promise they’ll never follow through on.
Remember those nights you crawled into my bed and we lay awake in our until morning, our bodies tense with the kind of thrill that only comes from deliberating scaring yourself, whispering that old children’s story in low voices?
Ratcatcher, ratcatcher. I told you the watered-down version I remembered from old bedtimes, in which he rounds up the town’s children with his magic flute and dances with them out through the forest, through a hole in the mountain into paradise. You favored more sinister retellings, in which he leads them into the woods to do unspeakable things to them, or across the river Weser to drown like rats (when we used to go swimming there I’d always dive to the bottom with my eyes open, looking for a flash of bone.) And sometimes, when we’d been talking for hours, you’d suddenly fly out of bed and to the window, prying it open so that the room instantly dropped 10 degrees.
“Listen to that!” You’d say. Or “Do you hear bells? Who’s doing that?”
I’d press my ear to the screen and hear nothing but a kind of deep whistling sound, like the wind. Whenever this happened I’d tell you that you were crazy, or that you’d scared yourself stupid. Then I’d get back in bed, pull the covers over my head and turn to face the opposite wall, but underneath I’d be listening as hard as I could.
Of course we joked about it over breakfast the next day. I said that the story was probably based on some pervert who used to kidnap children, and they added the magic stuff later. You murmured, in your painfully obvious way, that you’d heard once that he was young and handsome, and gathered the prettiest girls from each village to join him in his harem. Looking back, I can still see the exact twist of my mouth, as if I were outside my own body:
“Then I guess you won’t have to worry.”
For one hot, mean moment I felt better. It was as if I’d managed to erect a barrier between us, and your ugliness, your shyness, weren’t my own. And then I was sorry right away, and just wished you’d say it back.
Mornings when we crowded in front of the mirror in the partial darkness of early morning, I thought I looked almost pretty, and I could imagine myself dancing with a boy in the belly of a hollowed-out gym, the way the disco-ball specks would float like snowflakes across our bare arms. But then you flicked the light on, uncovering the things that hid in the shadows; my long witchy nose and cheeks scarred from old pimples, your lazy eye. These were the real things, the only things that mattered, and if there was music outside the window it was for someone else.
That week was freezing and long, and it snowed so much that we had to strap old tennis rackets to our feet to get to school. They closed the gym, so the kids who usually pummelled each other into the ground practicing football plays turned their collective energy on us instead.
Do you still think about Peter Lewing? The tall one with the blue eyes who you always thought was so cute? I hope you don’t. I hope that you’ve long since forgotten how you cried, in front of the whole class, when he “accidentally” dropped his lunch tray into your lap. You were in tears all the way home, and I begged you to shut up because the girls who walked back along our route were staring at us and whispering behind cupped hands.
I fell asleep too early that night, listening to you scrubbing the stains out of your dress, rhythmically, in the bathroom.
When I awoke it was dark and I was shivering. The window was open, and the air coming through it smelled strange, colder and harder than usual. And I didn’t have to turn around; I could feel the empty space in the room beside me.
Will you forgive me for not coming to look for you right away? I went downstairs and sat at the kitchen table in the dark, with my hands over my eyes, as if we were playing a game of hide-n-seek. I wasn’t thinking about anything. When mom ran shouting down the stairs an hour later, it was like she was breaking me out of a thousand-year dream.
You’ll be happy to know that the whole town turned out to look for you, stunned and solemn beneath layers of coats and scarves. We went door-to-door looking, first at the houses your friends, then strangers, and then into every shop, and finally to the edge of the woods, where we stopped at the treeline. They made the kids turn back then while the adults searched, and mom came home much later and shut herself up in her room without a word.
It gave me a cramping pain deep in my stomach to imagine you, my skinny little sister, slipping out of the window and down the fire escape, ghostly in your nightdress, floating down the snowy cobblestones while that low music played, out over the schoolyard and between the towering trees. Or had someone really carried you away, cradled in his arms like a miniature bride, past frosted shop windows and the field where we spent so many evenings crouched in the bleachers, watching the high-school boys practice football, memorizing their bare torsos while knowing that they were so far away that they might as well have been distant planets? Poor Lore, with your grey eyes and sallow skin and stupid, stupid hope, so much like me. I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry or scream.
Here’s something about the world which you might not know yet: It cares very little for one’s personal crises. Everything marches on at a cruel pace, the walls of your life closing up over your wound before you even have time to feel it properly. I barely ate or slept, and yet I still had to study for my exams, still had to duck spitballs and weave around outstretched feet in the hallway. I work twice a week at the post office, mostly just sorting through letters, but I like seeing the addresses on the back and knowing that they’re going to so far away- it thrills me that places like India and London even exist. Mom has started taking boarders in to sleep in the attic. She’s saving up to send me to college. And I wake up and am amazed that the world is still standing.
I thought I saw you once, a couple of weeks after you disappeared. I haven’t told mom about this. She’d send me to the school counselor, say it was a dream or a hallucination brought on by grief or lack of sleep. But in the end it doesn’t matter.
That day was so bitterly cold that the milk bottles I lugged from the corner store were covered in a scrim of ice by the time I reached the house. I bent to put them down on the stoop, and when I looked up you were there. You came down the narrow street from the direction of the woods. I knew it was you instantly, because you were running in your particular clumsy, duck-footed way. I dropped the bottles but didn’t move. I stood there, watching my spectral sister grow larger and larger. When you reached me I saw that you were still wearing your nightgown, though the lace around the hem was stained, as if it had been dragged through mud. There was a piece of moss stuck to your chin. You helped me pick shards of glass from the snow. Then we sat on the front step, and I closed my eyes, and you rested your freezing cheek on my shoulder. I wanted so badly to ask if the mountain had opened up for you, and what was on the other side. But I couldn’t speak, and I knew you wouldn’t be able to answer me. So we sat there until my fingers started to ache from the cold and I could tell you had gone without opening my eyes.
A hunter found your backpack in the woods later that day. Apparently it still had half the food you’d packed. I suppose you know all of this already, but bear with me: Nearby he spotted your nightgown hanging from a low tree branch. He brought it to our door as solemnly as if it were your corpse.
I went into the woods that night. I didn’t tell anyone but I’ll tell you, because I think you’ll understand. I stuck my flashlight into every hollow tree or space between rocks, searching for any trace of a door into an enchanted word. Once I found a huge boulder with a crack in the side. You might have laughed if you’d seen the way I tried to squeeze my head through it. I kept hoping I’d hear the music, that I could follow it like a compass to wherever you were, but the only sounds were my own steps crunching in the snow and the occasional howl from some pained nocturnal creature.
The flashlight cast tall, warped shadows all around me, and soon every path I walked was one I had already been down, and I was seeing my own footprints in double and triple on the ground. That was when I gave up. I walked all the way home in the pale early morning glow, and the whole time I told myself I wasn’t going to stop at our house, that I was going to walk right through the river and out of town, and keep walking I was halfway across the world. And then of course I went home, because I always do.
These days I try to direct all my energy into working and planning for the future, and not to imagine anything at all. But I can’t help it- I dread every coming summer, every new snowmelt, wondering if this time they’ll find a pile of bones in the woods, or a surging current will wash your skull onto the riverbank.
Maybe one day I’ll reach under my pillow and pull out a note explaining that you ran away. Maybe there really is a door somewhere, and I missed it because I didn’t look hard enough, or because it was never meant for me in the first place. Maybe one day I’ll hear the music outside my window. I don’t think it will ever happen, and if it does I know that I’ll ignore it. But I’ll always be listening.