My thirteen-year-old sister, Mara, wakes me to tell me that she is dead.
She believes this.
I’m twelve, the younger one, though the age difference has never really mattered between us. In the dimness of our bedroom, she’s pressed close to me, her skin warm and a bit sweaty. Just beyond our window–invisible to me now in the dark–the ocean thrashes. I hear and taste it; it makes everything here salty, even the indoors.
This is what Mara says to me:
“Do you remember when we went night-swimming? Do you really remember?”
Something in her voice tells me I’m not supposed to answer.
“The water was so dark,” she says. “So rough. I can’t believe I forgot this…I got pulled under. I couldn’t breathe. The next thing I knew, someone was pulling me out. They pushed on my chest and I had to spit up all this water. They said I was okay, after. You said so, too. But, I wasn’t. Only, I didn’t remember correctly until now.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Groggy, I shift to get a better look at her. Shadow sister.
“I think because I didn’t know, I stayed,” she says.
She should be joking but she’s not. “You’re not making sense.”
“It makes perfect sense. It explains why I’ve been feeling so wrong ever since.” Her high and excited tone is like a fever, I think, a fever of belief. How can she?
I grab onto her. My hands closing around her arms, firm with flesh and bone. I think she must not be able to feel this–her own solidity.
“Hey,” I say. “Stop–”
“–Don’t be so loud.”
She doesn’t want Dad to hear. She doesn’t want him to know.
And all of this is making me feel, weirdly, like hurting her. I need to make Mara feel something.
I should tell you about our island. Northern, forested, one road. Our house stands alone on a rocky outcropping at the southern tip. To get here, you have to have your own boat or else pay to ride along with the once-a-day mailboat. In winter, sometimes huge chunks of seawater freeze and no boats can come or go.
Just twenty people live here year-round, most of them fishers like Dad. There are no other kids. Once, Mom lived here too. We lost her when I was just a baby. She drowned. Now, when Mara and I swim in the ocean, when slick strands of seaweed brush up against us, we imagine Mom caressing us with her ghost hands. She reaches for us, but not to pull us in. Or if she means to pull us in, it is because she doesn’t know any better.
We love you Mom, but we can’t join you.
We have Dad to look after, you know.
Dad tests us each year to make sure we can freestyle the half-mile out to the finger islands, visible from our porch, and back. He’s got a saying: “Fish have to learn to swim from day one.” He looks different from us. Tall like us, but hairy all over, and with blond, sun-starched hairs, so we call him the blond bear. I think he’s maybe handsome under all the hair, but it’s hard for me to tell. His arms are bulged with muscle from hauling nets all day.
We don’t need anybody else. This is the life Mom and Dad chose years ago, and I know it’s not easy for Dad, though he wants to act like it is. When he looks at me and Mara, at our slippery, waist-length black hair and lightning green eyes, what can he see but Mom?
The night Mara is talking about–the night swim–it really happened. Except, none of the rest of what she says did. Only this: we took a swim at night in the ocean. Realize, this was only one week ago.
It was also the start of summer. Dad gives us a whole two months off homeschool. With the sun steady bright, the ocean finally not ice cold, mosquitoes buzzing in the sweetened air. Even we two, born islanders, can get to feeling this kind of craze from the frozen months, from days on end of still, white, quiet.
We wanted to swim with the stars overhead.
But we’re not foolish. We know the ocean can love a girl too much. We know the ocean is a thing you can only love if you fear it. That night, we timed it so the ocean would be its calmest, the low slack tide. We waited for the snores of Dad’s deepest sleep. Then out we snuck, confident that the house, in its ever-creaking, made enough sound to cover us. We clambered down the rocky path to the cove, moonlit. We stripped our clothes.
The water was like velvet, smooth and black. Still chilly. The stars reflected hazily in its surface, shaken by the slight motion of the waves, so that they appeared molten within, dripping light. Our bodies shone too, our skin absorbing brightness. And I felt bright. Entering the water, it was so good, the glow of myself pressing up against the cool of the dark.
I don’t know for how long I swam, maybe fifteen minutes, and then I felt numbed. I walked out onto the sand and shook the wet from my body. Meanwhile, Mara kept swimming. I watched her take long strokes parallel to the shore, as she got closer to where the beach gets rocky, and where our favorite big boulder juts into the water at all tides. It’s perfect for an outstretched girl to lie on and sun herself, or I guess, right then, moon herself, while dangling her toes into the ocean. But it must have been slippery that night. The dark making it hard to see.
I watched Mara swim up to the boulder, the waves so gentle, letting her. Then, she lifted herself up onto it. I saw her rise–and then, she went right back down. Crash, into the night ocean.
It wasn’t actually deep. But in that moment, Mara forgot this. Forgot that all she had to do was stand up, and the water would have risen no higher than her waist. And in forgetting, she did not know if she was going to be okay. She flailed, slapping at the water all around her, a panicked animal desperate to stay afloat.
Watching her, I forgot too. I ran. Across the beach and into the shallows, toward her, cutting my feet on the rocks as the sand gave way. Then, Mara did realize. She stopped struggling and let her legs drop down so that her feet settled on the ocean floor. She was standing then, anchored, with the ocean sloshing gently at her stomach. Meanwhile, I was splashing toward her, half-striding, half-paddling. When I reached her, I gripped onto her, her clammy skin.
She didn’t react. Didn’t do a thing. Just stayed frozen, like she was in some trance. In the moonlight, her face looked strange to me. Like a face that had forgotten itself. Like as if everything that was Mara had gone away, and there was just this face… Not hers.
Blood oozed near her left eyebrow. “Shoot,” I said, because it would leave a mark. “Dad…”
That seemed to bring her back. She jerked her whole body. “We’re not going to tell him a thing,” she said, angry. “Let’s go.”
She pushed off, paddling toward the shore, and I followed. I wanted to say something. Like, What happened exactly? But she was ahead of me, and I had seen, hadn’t I? Plus, her anger made clear that she wanted it to be forgotten. We tugged on our clothes, still wet, and scrambled back to the house, making a silent plea that Dad was still asleep–he was–and then searching for ointment. And the next day, it was as if it hadn’t happened. Almost. As the day went on, I sensed that Mara was troubled, only she refused to admit this. It was a whole day later when I caught her with that same strange look back on her face.
It has been a total of six days since, and I can count five more times it has happened–her freezing up, and then, the look. It passes quickly, as if she doesn’t realize it’s happening. “What’s wrong?” I keep asking. “Nothing!” she insists. Which has made it extra wrong. It is not like us, keeping things from each other.
“No, Rose, you’re the one who remembers wrong,” Mara says now. And we’re at a standstill. My word against hers.
“If you’re dead, how can you talk to me?”
“It’s not really talking,” she says.
“But I can see your mouth moving. I can hear your voice coming from your lips.”
“It’s not… like that.”
“I can feel your heart beating, here–”
I slide my hand over her heart, over the nightgown and skin covering the trembling red organ. I take Mara’s hand and press our joined hands to the spot. “Feel,” I command. “Can’t you feel it?”
What does Mara feel?
“Numb,” she says. She describes a dullness everywhere. Like she’s trying to feel through layers and layers of something un-feeling. Her own lifeless body–a husk.
“My body is just hanging on me,” she says, “like something I ought to be able to cast off, but I can’t seem to do it.”
And what would happen to you then? I want to ask, but there’s nothing I can say that will persuade her right now. So I just hold onto her, thinking: Tomorrow she will be over this. I feel the breath in her body, how she’s warm. And I know my sister can’t be dead. My sister is right here.
When Dad comes in to wake us, he’s already spent hours out on the water. In the low light of dawn, when the fish are hungriest, he’s caught the day’s feast and brought it back for us. The mackerel stench clings to him, and his face nuzzling mine is all dry, brittle beard and salty kisses, and I love it–I do. I want to bury myself in his hairiness. I want to tell him that Mara is saying crazy things, and he needs to help me set her straight–but Mara made me promise. Now if I tell, I’ll have broken her trust, and she won’t talk to me, and then I won’t know if she has found a way to “cast off” her body, or whatever it is she thinks she, a self-proclaimed-dead-girl, must do.
“This big bear’s going to eat you honeybears up,” Dad roars, pawing our hair.
Lately, Mara has been ignoring the big bear’s advances, but this morning she goes fully into bear-attack mode. She chomps down on the meat of Dad’s arm, snarling. It’s so unexpected that I think she’s over it, she’s forgotten about last night. But once he leaves, she makes it clear: she was pretending.
As we pull on too-big jean cutoffs, I point out the shiny, raised red line by her eyebrow–the healing cut, now visible in the daylight.
“This?” she says, fingering the injured skin. “I hit my head on the bedpost one night.”
It’s the lie we told Dad.
“Funny,” she says. “I guess when you die, you look however you looked right then. I’ll look like this forever.”
Our mission this morning is to revisit the cove–the place where Mara fell. Each of us believes we can prove to the other what really happened there, by being there, as if the place holds some kind of tangible memory, one we can step right back into. Mara is also intent on recovering the rest of her own memory. Because even now, she admits, when she has supposedly recalled “the truth,” it’s still hazy in her mind. There are important things she can’t recall. Like: Where was I in the moment when she drowned?
“There was no one. I was right there, and you were fine,” I say, but she has the mysterious look on her face.
Dad gives us the run of the island for the most part in summer, with the idea that we abide by his rules. No getting in any boats without his knowledge. No climbing on the high cliffs where the peregrine falcons roost. No swimming out past the breakers alone. (We stretch some.)
Anyhow, as we scamper along the familiar route to the cove, it occurs to me we haven’t come here since. It’s so close to home. A half-moon pocket of sand carved into a coastline that is mostly rocks. It’s like I still expect there to be a clear sign, a spill of red blood on the boulder the in the exact place where Mara struck her forehead. But it’s a silly thought. The ocean has been washing everything here for days.
“I’m getting in,” Mara says, pulling off her boots at the surf’s edge. “Not all the way,” she adds, seeing my look. “Come on.”
“That won’t help.” Besides, I think, this is more like what actually happened: me on the beach, while Mara kept swimming.
She shrugs, pushes her jean cutoffs higher on her thighs, and wades, bracing against the oncoming surf. It’s low tide like before, but the waves are high and strong now instead, and they’ve picked up a ton of green seaweed. Mara doesn’t go far, stopping midway into the crashing shallows. Her back is to me, and she’s still for such a time that I think she has closed her eyes. The wind makes it pointless to ask. I imagine that she is trying to overlay the images of that night onto this place, sort of like I’m doing. Then it occurs to me that if Mara’s eyes are closed, she is not seeing what I’m seeing, what’s here around us, but something else entirely.
I shiver. “Hey–”
Finally, she turns around, though not because she heard me. She tries to say something, but the wind swallows her voice, too, and she has to stagger back toward me.
“It’s not right,” she’s saying, legs sloshing water. “I thought it had to have happened here, because–I don’t know–where else? So, I thought, maybe it just looked different, because it was dark. But it’s obvious now.”
“Wait–what? You’re trying to tell me it wasn’t even here?”
Her eyes are hard as oyster shells. “Just listen. I know you’ll remember this. There were these rocks jutting out of the water… I just now recalled them. This one? Looked like a needle.”
I try to argue, but something is happening to my head, the feeling of a door swung open into my skull, and Mara’s words crawl inside me, reverberating distortedly and taking on strange significance: A rock like a needle.
I’m sure I’ve never seen something like that, so then why is it that I seem to know precisely how to picture it? The needle is pointing straight down into the ocean, stabbing the water with its tip. The eye is at the top. There’s a narrow, slot-shaped hole through which I can see the sky.
Sometimes, I seem to remember Mom. Her slippery black hair. Her tense green eyes and small mouth. A sugary and bodily odor, conveying a mix of comfort and worry. These aren’t real memories, though. I was an infant when Mom died. Mara was one and a half. It’s possible she could actually remember something, some tiny thing. But not me.
So, as Mara is telling me about the needle rock, and I start feeling this sort of slipping, or, I guess, familiarity, I’m at the same time aware of my mind’s tendency to trick me. I hate being separated from Mara. And the way my mind is, well, it can make stuff up, in order so that’s not the case. To bring us close.
It has always bothered me, for example, that there was a period of Mara’s early life that did not include me. That year in which she existed without me.
She’d had Mom all to herself.
I can’t really picture it, though, what Mara’s life then could have been like. What could she have possibly been doing, other than waiting around for me?
“I’m going to find that place,” Mara says. “I’ll prove everything to you.”
She’s already walking away. Watching her, the sun highlighting the hairs of her arms and legs, giving her a halo outline, I want badly to grab onto her. I don’t know what I expect, exactly. That she’ll disappear?
How can you walk away from me, Sister, when I would follow you anywhere? Even into a frightening mind-game where I can no longer tell what’s real from what isn’t?
She fell and hit her head… Ever since that night, she has been pulling away from me.
I do remember.
“Wait,” I call after her. “I’m coming.”
If Mara can find the needle rock, she’ll have proof maybe.
More importantly, she’ll be able to figure out what went wrong. How she ended up like this.
She’ll be able to fix it.
This is the summary of her quest as she explains it to me, torturing me with her thoughts as we make our way outward along the coast.
What I want to know is: Does she mean to fix herself being “dead?” Or to fix the fact that she’s still here? With me?
“Mara, you don’t want to, um, not be here. That’s not what you mean, right?” I ask.
“Of course not. It’s just… I shouldn’t feel this way.” She shrugs her body in a way that emphasizes its helplessness, the body she can’t feel, or that feels un-body-like.
My palms sting as I dig my fingernails in. As long as I stay with her, I can keep her from doing anything stupid.
So, we spend the rest of today searching our island. We scope out rock and pebbled beaches; we frighten eider ducks in the bay; we muck around clam flats and tidepools full of whelks and snails. I wave at everyone’s fishing boats hauling in their catches near the village landing. Meanwhile, Mara hunts the shoreline so earnestly it messes me up a little.
We know these places, don’t we? Haven’t we lived our whole lives here? We measured the island on a map once, as part of Dad’s topography unit–thirteen miles, that’s a rough circumference. It would take about five days total to search the entire coast, if that’s what Mara insists.
Can I tell you something else? When I stop arguing with her, I can start to think this is a game we’re playing. It’s just the two of us clambering over the rocks together, with our eyes reflecting the same ocean, our steps practically in-step, and I feel closer to my sister than I have in a week. We’re us again. And all I want is more of us.
At dinner tonight, after avoiding food all day as far as I’ve seen, Mara eats. I don’t say so, but apparently the “dead” still can eat. She pokes at the fried fish uncertainly before shoving it down, with a look at Dad. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your taste for fish,” he jokes, in his Dad-way, deflecting any potential moods as a reflex. Mara smiles in a way I know is fake and makes me want to groan.
“Dead” girls can also sleep, better than I do. My sister wakes just as sure and determined as the day before. This is a game, I tell myself. We’re playing a game together. But the truth is I’m not so sure. And I have no idea how far my sister might be willing to take it.
The game is: for the next five days, subtracting Day One, we rush out of the house at dawn and return as close to dusk as possible. We return sooner than we want, because of Dad, and not just because of practical things like it getting dark and batteries being expensive. We spend every possible instant searching.
On the second day we leave the inhabited part of the island behind and advance to more rugged territory. Once we get past the last of the houses, which are scattered within easy-ish walking distance from the village landing, the rest is pure wilds. Our island grows harder around its edges, more tangled with spruce in the interior, though it’s the edges we cling to, that border with the ocean. Steep bluffs drop sheer to the water in places. There’s a marsh where a stream lets out, forever foggy. There’s even a small mountain. Out here are harbor seals, a family of otters, even three bald eagles that I know of.
I know this place. And yet, the back of my mind sloshes full of dark water–full of everything that Mara keeps telling me. I picture the needle, moonlight glinting along its hard edge, and I can’t help feeling as if I’m missing something. Not necessarily about the island or about Mara, but about the world–its substance.
Have you heard the story of the woman who fell in love with the ocean? You haven’t. I’m pretty sure it’s a Dad original. I’m also pretty sure that the woman in this story is Mom. Not actual Mom, of course, because it’s a fairytale. But, come on: superlong dark hair, obvious beauty–the way Dad describes her is definitely Mom.
Or maybe I only think that because those are pretty much the only details I know about her–what Mom looked like. Otherwise, nobody really talks about her.
The woman who fell in love with the ocean had really always been enamored with the ocean, but over time she got to loving the ocean so much that, one day, she swam too deep. To a place where people aren’t meant to go, where castles rise from the ocean floor, and where the fish prince lives. The woman was obviously beautiful. When the fish prince saw her swimming with her long dark hair flowing around her like a veil, he fell in love with the woman, too. And so, the fish prince convinced the woman to stay with him in his watery kingdom, and, to that day, remain forever in the clutches of the ocean she so loved.
I have wondered so many times: What is the woman doing down there all of the time? Does she miss whoever it was she left behind on land? Is the fish prince at least good-looking?
The moral of the story is something like: Don’t let yourself fall so completely in love with the ocean. Because the ocean is too strong a lover. Once it has you, it might not let go.
Ever since I can remember, Dad has been telling us it is our job to take care of each other.
I could ask about Mom, you know. I could get someone to tell me about her. But I don’t. It’s better this way. Because if anyone were to tell me about Mom, they’d only be telling me what I never had. They’d be proving how much I don’t have her. Much better for me and Mara to keep our own version of Mom in secret.
Dad understands, I think. He knows Mom is kept safest inside us.
“What have my girls been up to? I’ve hardly seen you,” Dad says, when we return late for the third day in a row.
We have taken little care with chores–mopping the fish gut-streaked porch, scraping salt grime from the windows–and we’ve turned down all Dad’s invitations to go out in the boat. Normally this is one of my favorite things–casting our nets in the first light, with the first color making strange signals on the water. He’s smiling when he asks, but it’s clear he misses us. Maybe he even worries we’ll get to an age where we don’t want his company so much.
“Nothing,” Mara says.
“It’s secret,” I add.
I wink and ply him with hugs and kisses. Mara imitates me. She holds onto Dad for an extra-long beat, and an ache rings in me.
Here is a secret: Sometimes I imagine that when Dad goes out in his boat, with nothing but the ocean and the sky around, with the border between them erased by dark, it’s not fish he’s looking for at all.
By the fourth day, Mara’s body hangs on her even more heavily. She flings her arms out and sighs repeatedly and helplessly. Though, her eyes remain desperate in her searching. This is somehow a more frightening version of Mara than before, when she was eager and sure of herself.
“We still have a lot of territory to cover,” I say, trying to re-engage her in our mission.
I notice she has started picking at the skin of her side, at a spot just under the hem of her shirt. Her hand seems to go there atomically, her fingers digging in, especially when she thinks I’m not looking. I’m afraid if I tell her to stop she’ll run the other way.
Tonight, I wake to discover Mara trying to commune with a ghost.
“Mom?” I hear her whisper.
Mara is kneeling on the cold wooden floor with her palms upraised as if she senses an invisible presence in the room. I try to feel if there’s anything else here with us, but the energy crackling the air is all my sister’s.
“I don’t understand. Why am I still here?”
“What are you doing?” I demand.
Mara’s eyes are shining. “You wouldn’t be alone. You’d have Dad. And I’d–”
“–be with Mom,” I leap from the bed, hissing. “No, no, no.”
I collide into her with such force I nearly pin her to the floor. I’m kneeling over her, my arms tight around her, my hands gripping her skull. My hands keep pressing, pressing into the sides of her head. It’s as if some part of me wants to crush her, but also I am keeping her right here, right here.
“Is that what you want?” I say, breathless. “That’s what this is about? You want to be dead, so you can leave us and go be with her?”
“–Shut up. You are one messed up sister, do you realize that? Jeez. Do you even realize–”
“–Shhh Rosy please.”
I automatically go quiet, listening for Dad, the reliable bass of his snoring harmonizing with the wind’s howl. Then, I’m angry.
“Why do you even care? Aren’t you just trying to–” I can’t say it again. Leave.
She flinches hard.
“Did you ever consider maybe there’s a reason you stayed? Not saying I believe you because I don’t. I still don’t.”
I release her, disgusted. She remains exactly as she is. Maybe she’s even stunned.
I pace back and forth on the other side of the bed, my heart concussing against my ribcage. I wish it would stop. I want to feel nothing instead, the way Mara talks about. I hold my breath, as if I can force my body to not feel anything, but it doesn’t work. I feel everything–my heart beating and beating, sand in my socks, salt on my lips.
I sense that maybe Mara is looking over at me, maybe even regretfully. I ignore her.
I let the anger in me grow large enough to form another body, a better sibling.
Eventually, she gets back into bed. I think she’s doing something under the covers. She’s picking at her side again. I refuse to notice.
Much later, when I still can’t sleep, I hear Dad get up. I go to him.
He is a big shadow in the main room gathering his equipment without need of a light.
“Dad?” Before I can think, I hear myself blurt, “What happens when you die?”
He seems taken aback. I am too old for this question. He switches on a battery-powered lantern. When he speaks, his voice is knowing.
“You’re thinking about Mom?”
It’s so unexpected, her name in his mouth. To my confusion, tears prick my eyes.
“Oh, Rosy bear.” His big arms wrap around me, pulling me into his chest. I cry with a deep-throated heaving. “I know you wish you could have known her. She would have loved getting to know you.”
There is such comfort here, in his arms, with his hairs prickling through his shirtsleeves, his brackish scent. It doesn’t matter that he thinks I am crying for a different reason than I am. After, he asks if I want to join him in the boat. He wants me to say yes. I feel guilty saying no.
I need to be with my sister now. My sister who is scared. And I don’t know why exactly, or if it’s a real thing to be scared of. But still I don’t tell.
“I didn’t tell,” I say, scooting back close to her in bed.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“No matter what you feel, just keep telling me, okay? Never stop talking to me.”
Have I told you how, when we were little, Mara went through a whole phase of nightmares involving the ocean? She used to wake crying about getting lost in the dark depths, her neck tangled in seaweed. She recounted each episode vividly to me while I gritted my teeth, imagining the sludgy dread of water in my lungs. Her dreams were so powerful that they got into my head, too, after a while. And then, we were both dreaming that way, both waking up crying, calling for Dad.
It made sense, Dad said. We were old enough–five and six-ish–to begin to understand what it meant to have a mom who drowned. The dreams went away at some point, the way it is with stuff you grow out of. But what I think about now is how easily my sister’s dreams became my own, back then. How I always cling to her. I have the odd thought that if we were ever actually drowning, I wouldn’t even try to swim away or get help. I’d just hold onto Mara, thinking that together was the only way I wanted to be anything.
What do I really want?
It’s the question I’m asking myself now, on the fifth and final day of our search. We’ve completed the circle. We’ve come around the tip of a rocky headland and, gazing out along the coast ahead, we can see our house–tiny, on its own wind-battered outcropping–and although we haven’t yet searched the area between here and there, we can see it, that entire distance. And there is nothing there we haven’t seen a hundred times before.
Shouldn’t I be relieved? I should be telling Mara, “I told you so.” Instead, I feel vaguely let down.
Mara stares straight ahead for so long her body starts trembling. She casts a fierce look back at me. There’s something she wants to say. Something she’s working up to. But then she plunks herself down on a rock instead. The hem of her shirt slides up, and I can see the spot she’s been picking at, red and clumpy. Her hair is blowing, the sun bright on her face, and she is so alive, my sister.
What do I want?
I gaze at the ocean, imagining the waves peeling back, unveiling whole worlds. I look at the finger islands, a half-mile out. This is the same familiar stretch of water that’s also seen from our house. I have been looking at this same view for so long.
But have I really?
It occurs to me now, like the tiniest of snags: What if I’ve not actually been looking?
Those narrow islands… What’s past them? Beyond the horizon, where I can’t see, where the blue water seems to curve and end–but it doesn’t really. It doesn’t. In fact, there’s something else there. Just a blur of gray–it’s another scrap of land, another island too small for a name. Oh, but it would be easy to let its blurriness blur away completely.
“I know I’m not dead,” Mara says, rubbing her face. “I really did believe it, though. For a while… And then, I guess, in a way it was easier to be dead than to… I just was so sad.”
She’s gazing at the blur too. I can almost feel her touching it with her eyes, pulling at the rough, visible edge of what I can see, as if she is going to peel it off like a sticker–and she shouldn’t, shouldn’t do this, my mind says.
“Why don’t we ever go there?” she says, pointing.
I don’t answer.
“When I fell in the ocean, and it was so dark, and I hit my head, too, I thought… It was like… How could I not be reminded?”
“–Don’t,” I say, but it’s too late.
“Don’t you remember anything about Mom?”
I shake my head firmly, but there it is all the same.
“I was six,” Mara says, urging.
“I was five.” I look into her eyes, a perfect reflection of mine, and I know that we are remembering, finally, the same thing.
Our mom was full of games. Hiding with us under our beds from the sand monster. Making fishbone wind-chimers that she strung up around the house to keep the marsh ghosts away. Sprinkling hot pepper onto objects we didn’t want to get taken away by… What? What was going to take them?
Talking about her now like we never have, I seem to recall snippets of a mother who enchanted our days, making everything, every gust of wind, every night critter scratching at the window, into part of a greater fantasy, the very fantasy of our lives. But there’s something else too, that I was maybe too young to see back then: how scared she was. Of stuff that shouldn’t have been scary. Like a sheet in the wind. A neighbor knocking at the door. Me, coming back into the house from playing. Why did so many of her games involve hiding?
This is hard for me to understand. How am I meant to understand it? I suppose over time Mom must have gotten more scared, until her fears weren’t just contained in games.
On the morning of our kidnapping, Dad was out fishing like usual. He used to stay out longer on the water back then, hauling extra nets for money. What must Mom have said to Mara and me as she ushered us into the rowboat, the one they used to keep tethered up by the house? There was something we had to get away from. Yes. We couldn’t wait for Dad. It was a game of epic proportions.
No one witnessed the little rowboat paddle out through choppy waves, past the finger islands, to that other blur-in-the-distance island. Which was as far as we got.
Why there? I guess she had to stop someplace. There we camped out with Mom for two entire days, under the cover of a thicket of trees, with a tent she made out of a tarp. Meanwhile, the rest of the islanders put on a search for us. We had covered our boat with rocks where we banked it on the shore, so it couldn’t be seen from afar.
No one knows how, when the rescue party arrived, we ended up on the edge of the cliff.
What I remember is how dark the water was. Flailing and struggling. And a pain which blinded me. How I came to in the dark wet as it sucked and pulled at me, and I was maybe entering the world or leaving it, but I wasn’t sure. I remember seeing something glinty and sharp. A needle.
I can’t erase the terrible fear that I might have jumped. That I was so caught up in whatever game Mom had us playing, she didn’t have to gather me into her arms or pull me with her over the edge.
I look at Mara, and I wonder just how different we are.
Where were you?
In the water, there were three of us: Mom, sister, me. But only two lived.
I look at my sister, and I resolve to keep this one thing inside myself, where it will harden invisibly. And I wonder if Mara is experiencing the same kind of hardening, something inside her that I will never find, and will choose not to seek.
Even now, I can imagine how the falseness began. How every night afterward Mara and I dreamed it again. We woke screaming. And Dad tried to comfort us, when there was no comfort. Until one day he changed the story.
“Sweet bears,” he said. “It was just a dream. That didn’t happen. You were so little, just teeny-tiny when we lost your mom. You couldn’t possibly remember her.”
We looked at him and decided what we would believe.
Or maybe it was Mara who changed the story. Or it was me. As I cried into Dad’s chest one day. I said, “Wait–That didn’t really happen, did it?” And he answered in the way he thought could save me.
Maybe it was the kind of wound you have to cover over for it to start healing. But I think I need something different now.
It takes Mara and me two more weeks to convince Dad to take us out there, to that little blur island. Otherwise, we assure him we’ll commandeer the fishing boat and launch off ourselves. Mara knows how to run the motor and I’m pretty sure I could figure out how to steer.
We wear squeaky orange life vests. We’re not allowed to get out of the boat. But this time I’m not looking away.
Sarah Jane Cody‘s writing has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Washington Square Review, Gulf Coast, No Tokens, and elsewhere. She’s a contributing editor at Pigeon Pages. Right now she’s working on a novel.