I. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. A slender Italian with olive skin and a swollen stomach sits across from me. We are on a train rushing to Manhattan, and her feet are propped on the red duffel that sits at my knees. Her long waves of hair frizz in the summer heat. Sweat coats her face and her chest. I want to be like this woman: beautiful and far from home.
I have never ridden on a train before, and if I look out the window I have to shut my eyes. I have a summer job on Fifth Avenue at a publishing house. I will live in an apartment with two walls of glass and lesbian roommates with tastes for good wine. My mother did not want me to leave.
“I never did things like this when I was your age,” she said. Her face was puckered around the eyes, her crow’s feet extending like roads from pools of blue. “Text me when you switch trains,” she said. “Do you have cash? Go get my wallet. You should always have cash when you travel.”
My mother has been looking old lately. Her father is dying in Henrietta, the little town he raised her in. He is a man who loves hummingbirds, and camping, and has been wheelchair-bound for the last four years. My mother asked me if I wanted to make the six-hour car ride north to say goodbye. Instead, I make the three-hour train ride south.
“Don’t leave,” my mother said. I left.
II. I have always wanted to be close to my mother, but my mother has taught me not to value relationships. She is the second of five sisters: Amy, Beth, Holly, Lisa, Carol. It reminds me of Little Women, only they never speak to one another. I do not know why my aunts don’t speak. They had as normal an upbringing as any other girls. My grandfather was a social worker for the state of New York, and the money didn’t stretch far over a family of seven. The girls got new shoes once a year, and my grandmother handmade all of their clothes – except for Carol, my mother likes to point out. Carol got the store-bought dresses.
Travel was limited to camping trips in the Adirondacks or Virginia Beach, memories my mother swears she’s been trying to repress for as long as she can remember. One year, at sunrise, my grandfather set off for the washhouse in his pickup truck and failed to realize that the tent was still tied to the car, all five girls inside. When passing hikers waved frantically, he smiled and waved back.
“Did you ever see any bears?” I asked my mother once.
“Only at the dump,” she told me. “We used to drive over in the car to sit and watch.”
I had always assumed that my mother and her sisters would share a common bond, that these crazy camping experiences would have pulled them all together. Yet whenever they meet there is rigidness about them. Their faces are taut as if they are all grinding their teeth. They do not speak.
“Why is this?” I ask my grandmother. I lie on a mattress I bought secondhand and listen to the static of the phone line. Traffic hums outside my window.
“Your mother’s sisters didn’t include her in anything,” she says. “Your mother was always reading or studying. She was the brilliant one of the bunch.”
“But what about the others?”
My grandmother considers.
“They’ve always fought,” she says. “Clothes, chores… Holly and Carol haven’t spoken to each other in four years.”
Even though my mother didn’t have a close relationship with her sisters, I had always assumed she’d want one with me. As a kid I’d wait for her to come home from the night shift and run outside when her car pulled up the drive. I wanted her to spend time with me before I went to school, and butter bread for my lunch, and tell me stories about her patients in the hospital. I wanted her to read my book reports, and tell me I’d done a good job on my poster of the atom, and watch my soccer games. I wanted her to advise me on where I should go to college, and support my choice to be a writer, and help me plan my future.
She didn’t do any of these things, but when she said, “Don’t leave,” I’d held out hope for so long that I almost considered.
III. Every morning the subway lulls me into a fog, during which I miss whatever stop I am supposed to disembark. When I stumble into W.W. Norton I am still in a half-dream, usually replaying a scene from whatever book I have most recently read.
When I was in high school I performed in Our Town and this summer, for no particular reason, the show sticks in my mind like old rice. I remember the scene in which Emily is dead and she decides she wants to relive her 16th birthday. As she stands in the kitchen she screams at her mother, “Look at me.” Her mother turns, and for a fraction of a second, you almost think she has looked.
I. My earliest memory of my sister is of her drowning. I was six and she was two. She wandered away from my father and me while we visited a farm and tumbled into a pond. My sneakers were coated in muddy hay, and I tried to rub it off as I watched her. I remember her flailing arms; her baby bird mouth opening and closing; her fine hair plastered to her skull. Crows cawed in alarm. A Labrador ran down the slope, caught her by the shirt and pulled. When that didn’t work he positioned himself in front of her and used his nose to roll her up the bank. She was like a little Cinderella: all of the animals flocking to help her, while I stood by and watched.
I cannot remember anything else about my sister before that moment.
II. After spending the summer in New York, I return to Connecticut for my last year of college. I am a writer, and I take workshop after workshop. One professor who’s taught me four times in three years flips through my portfolio. “You always write about families,” she says. “Sisters, siblings, mothers, daughters… it’s the same themes over and over and over.”
I pull at a stray thread on my chair.
“I usually don’t see this kind of consistency in an undergraduate,” she tells me. “I don’t think you’ve ever written anything else.”
III. Sometimes it seems that all my memories of my sister are of her drowning. When she was three-years-old, she stumbled into the brook that ran alongside our house and fell face down into the water. Little leaves and petals rushed over her, the red hood of her jacket billowed up like a balloon. It took minutes for my father to realize she was missing, to stop the lawn mower and run to save her.
As a teenager, my sister developed a habit of running away, donned black clothes, and taught herself how to die. She was, and is, ethereal-pale, with big dark eyes and long hair, always piling on sets of crystal necklaces and rows of beaded bracelets.
My freshman year of college I came home for spring break with backpack full of gifts. My sister and I share a March birthday, but her room was empty.
“Where is she?” I asked my mother.
“In the hospital.” She stood at the stove mixing cake batter, a white smudge of flour on her forearm. “She was admitted a few months ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
My mother shrugged. “You never asked.”
I thought then, how easy it would have been to extend my hand, to pull my sister up from the water.
IV. When I am not writing, I sit in class and study fairy tales. I enjoy them because there is no reasoning behind any of the action. A boy butchers his brother, a chef cooks a young woman, a father cuts off his daughter’s hands. No one asks the storyteller, ‘Why did this happen?’ The reader simply accepts it and moves on.
My mother has never asked me to cut off my heel and shove my foot into a silver slipper, but I feel as though I have been living a fairy tale my whole life, that I have been listening to a story and not questioning it.
V. In the six years my sister is in and out of mental wards I do not visit her once.
I believe if I hold out long enough, my real family will turn up and whisk me off to a cottage in a faraway village, and I will live happily ever after. I learn there is a Freudian term for that. It’s called “splitting.”
I. While my grandfather is dying I develop a keen interest in my mother’s childhood. I want to know why exactly none of the sisters speak to each other, but when I ask my mother for any stories or early memories, she brushes me off. “I must have blocked it out,” she jokes. “Go ask your Aunt Holly. She’ll make up something for you.”
“You mean she’ll lie?” I ask.
My mother rolls her eyes. “Holly’s such an exaggerator. She can make a story out of anything.”
I do ask my Aunt Holly. I send her a long note full of questions and bounce on my heels until I receive her reply.
“Your mother was my favorite sister,” my aunt says. “I needed a big sister that I could look up to and your mother was perfect. She was the prettiest and the kindest and the smartest. When I needed a bridesmaid at my wedding I chose her.”
When I repeat this to my mother she snorts.
“Holly forgot to mention that I was the best cook.”
II. My aunts have my grandfather cremated. He surpasses everyone’s expectations and makes it through the summer and into the second week of December. I call and tell my mother I have moved my final exams to the beginning of the week. I can accompany her to Rochester for the memorial service.
“I thought you would like to stay home instead,” she says. “Someone needs to watch the dog.”
Outside my picture window the earth is frozen and dark. I do not want to go to the funeral; I was not close to my grandfather. I pushed the exams so I could be with my mother.
“Is that what you want?” I ask. “Do you want me to stay here instead?”
“Whatever you want.”
“No,” I say. “He’s your father. Do you want me to come?”
“You weren’t eager to see him before he died,” she says, and I rest my head against the glass. I shut my eyes.
III. Churches make me nervous, and I utter a silent thanks to Yahweh, Buddha, or whoever, that there are no crucifixes for me to inadvertently focus my gaze on. My sister is heaving dry ugly sobs and I think I should put my arm around her. Instead, I slide to my left and put a few more inches between us. My mother glances at her, pulls a tissue from her purse, and hands it to her with two fingers.
Sometimes, when I think of my sister, I think of the story of Bluebeard who butchers the girls he courts and stashes the body parts behind a locked door. All I have to do is open the door, put the parts of my sister in order and she’ll come alive again. Then I remember that I would have to court a serial killer and wander his house. It sounds like too large an undertaking.
My Aunt Holly is speaking at the lectern and I know I should pay attention, but listening to her makes my heart race.
“I was with him when he died,” she says. “I held his hand. It was hard toward the end. His mouth was very dry and he was very short of breath. He would start a sentence and only get three words out before he had to stop. But he said to me, ‘It was wonderful.’
“I kept asking, ‘What was wonderful, Dad?’” she continues. “But he just kept repeating it. I don’t know if he was referring to those last days at home, or raising his five daughters, or his life, but he thought it was wonderful.”
We stand for the Lord’s Prayer, but I don’t know the words, so I watch Holly walk back to her seat. Those last moments seem too unreal for me. I was expecting something from a Conrad book. The horror. The horror.
I remember then what my mother said about Holly, and I decide she is lying.
I. After finishing college and moving to New York, I never stop studying fairy tales. Marina Warner and Maria Tatar live in the stack of books by my bed along with old French translations and the Brothers Grimm. I like the singing bones and dark forests. I like the reassurance that there doesn’t have to be a happy ending, even as I try to find my own.
If I were to write my childhood over it would sound like this: Once upon a time, two girls lived with their mother. She encouraged them to play, and learn, and love one another. Whenever one of the girls had troubles, she would go to her mother, and her mother would fix them.
It seems so simple. Why did it not happen?
Whenever I see my mother’s family I dig for information in the most casual ways I can conceive of. My grandmother indulges me the most, because she knows I’m curious, and she tells my Aunt Carol and me the stories of each girl’s birthday.
“Your mother was the easiest birth,” she tells me. “And did you know that she was born on her exact due date and on Mother’s Day?”
Carol rolls her eyes. “Well, isn’t it just like Beth to show us all up.”
And at that moment I realize there is nothing. There’s no reason, no big bang moment when they all fell apart. I think of the Italian woman on the train with longing: I would give anything to run away and make a new family, in a new place, all on my own.
Instead, I go home. I call my sister.
“Hi,” she says. “They just let me out of the hospital!”
Over the last few years her voice has taken on a bright, dreamy quality. She no longer sounds the same at twenty as she did at fifteen. Everything is empty where it used to be filled with sharpness, and snark, and the bitter sing-song of our childhood.
“What happened?” I ask.
“I went crazy again.”
“Yeah,” I say. I trace the knots on my desk with my fingers. “That happens sometimes.”
I open my mouth to say, “Come stay with me in New York. You can live here for the summer,” but then I shut it. I don’t want to have my baby sister filling my apartment with her strange voices and scarred limbs, where she may try to hang herself in my closet, or absent-mindedly walk in front of a taxicab. Then I remember that she’s all I have.
“Come stay with me,” I say. “I mean it.” I’m trying to avoid thinking of anything that will make me take back my words, and she does not respond.
“Emma?” I ask, but there’s nothing. Her name just hovers there as an open-ended question, like Fitcher’s bird reborn from the tree.
This piece originally appeared as an excerpt in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents an unedited, full version of this piece.