For years, I have drowned in everything but water. In oil. In petals. In the thick, golden coat of honey. In Helene’s coarse, almond-scented hair. In the scattering of her clipped fingernails she left on the bathroom counter as yellowed half-moons. Those shed parts she sloughed off and left for me to find when I cleaned; my hands gathering the dead portions of her body left behind.
I collected her inside a jar. I painted the outside black. It is still not enough to contain the woman who is my sister.
I wondered if she’s been bewitched. If the reason her eyes change from brown to gray is because a ghost has stepped into her skin. If her tongue has forgotten the incantations we fed each other as children because she’s drunk a potion that has locked the words behind her clenched teeth. If our father came to her in the night, speaking mumbled words over her inert body, before he finally vanished behind the door meant only for him.
Once, she told me what it was like to be haunted, but her mouth did not move, and I’ve forgotten the sounds she made. If anything possesses her, it is not in the imprint her fingers leave on my arm when she clutches it during a high wind, or in the cording of her throat when she swallows the water I bring her in the cut-crystal glasses our grandmother willed to us. It is the only glass I haven’t broken, my fingers uncontrolled and trembling as I take them down, unable to keep myself from dropping them. Every morning, I cut my feet on the shards, but I cannot find the broom, and my hands are so clumsy. My sister does not move to bandage my wounds, to hunt for peroxide, for a bandage, but her breath rattles out of her, and it is all the sorrow I need.
My memories are small: our father, this house, my own small rebellions. There has never been anything else. Helene never asked what existed beyond these walls, and I followed suit, but my body could not keep itself from its indiscretions. I committed them without thinking. Misplacing our father’s shoes; closing doors he told me never to close; eating the meat he carried into the house still raw and bloodied and wiping my mouth on the pale curtains hanging in the front room; scattering his papers, the geometric designs swirling at my feet as I passed smudged fingers over the marks and measurements he left there.
Once, I asked Helene what came before. Before the house. Before us. She stared back at me, her eyes reflecting the moonlight in the darkness of our bedroom and told me it would be better if every question inside of me dropped away. There was never anything else. Nothing else mattered. My questions were banal. Pointless. Worthy of eating and vomiting up like so much waste. There was our father. His two daughters. This house that he commanded. There was nothing else. Even the trees that drowned the house in a dim, green light were like an illusion, and if we ever dared to push past them, we would find only pale mist. A never-ending numbness.
Still, I found myself waking under the sky, the house looming behind me like some sleeping leviathan, the woods sighing around me as the wind pushed me backward. And I would return, too afraid to take more than two–hundred steps beyond the house and our father, too afraid to look for the things I didn’t understand. I was not strong enough to face whatever was beyond the house, to peer into any possibilities outside the lives our father had presented to us. Far easier to drift through those ever-shifting walls and pretend I didn’t want the meager love my father offered me because I was not Helene.
I pricked myself with needles. Held my hands over candle flames until I could no longer bear it. Pushed a fist in the soft place under my ribs until the bruise was the size of a pear. There was no amount of violence I could enact on my body that would allow my father, allow Helene, to see me as anything more than a mistake covered by skin. For Helene to gather me to her, to press the heat of herself against me, melding and coming together into a body greater than our father. Our mouths and teeth becoming something monstrous.
For three months, seven days, thirteen hours, fifteen minutes, seven seconds, Helene has cupped her body into the corner of our father’s bedroom. Her forehead has left a dark smear of oil on the wall, and her skin is bruised and bloodied from the friction. I imagine she is trying to press herself into the house, into the walls, to find what our father has vanished into, but she stays silent whenever I ask. Her body or the house—I cannot tell which—has sprouted flowering vines. Jasmine or honeysuckle or roses. She keeps the blooms away from me, and when I go to touch the places where her skin has opened, she bares her teeth in the kind of smile that is dangerous, and I leave her standing, her lips formed around the noise she calls prayer.
On some days, I cannot see the vines, and I wonder if I hallucinated it, or if Helene is conjuring them at will. Our father used to ask her to call things forth. Things he’d left behind. Things that would delight him. A single gardenia bloom. His hunting knife with the pearled handle. The large claw of an unrecognizable beast. And she would blink and tell him where to look. Under a rock outside by the elm tree. Hidden behind my left molar. And he would laugh and pull those items from their hiding places and call Helene his golden girl.
Now, she is only entropy. A chaos of veins and bone. Discolored flesh. An altar for our father that has not been used in so long.
Four months pass before she speaks. “Give me your mouth,” she whispers. Again and again until her voice grows hoarse. “Give me your mouth, and I will lay the spoils before him.”
There is blood on my feet, on my hands, and it smears against the glass as I tip the water into her mouth. Her tongue takes in those scarlet, lost parts of me, and she sighs. “I could devour you,” she says.
That night, I think about the act of allowance. How there is more surrender than demand in it. How I could allow Helene to gobble up every part of me until there was nothing left. Not even the stain of what I once was. Sometimes I think it would be better. That Helene be the only sister to remain. That she draw the flora, the earth, and damp, and rot into the house, and thrive in it while my corpse bloats, the blood cooled and settled to dribble out of me and feed her.
But every morning, I draw breath. I carry the water. I bleed insubstantial amounts. I suppose I was never a hollow enough vessel for her. For our father. There was always too much of myself, too much of my own will.
The vines reappear but do not flower. They are thorned but do not pierce Helene’s skin, and I know they are meant only for me. A defense mechanism against touch. A warning filled with silence.
Around us, the house is growing smaller. At night, it draws breath in small sips. Pretending I can’t hear what it’s doing. Pretending I don’t know it’s whispering secrets to Helene.
When we were young, our father winked at us whenever we would waken to new rooms in the house. Doors that opened on darkness or a verdant green so lush it made my mouth water. Floors gone so soft our feet sunk, our muscles aching from the effort to pull them out.
“It does my will,” he told us over breakfast. “And one day, it will choose one of you. I wonder which?”
Helene would smirk because she already knew. She was the one born with hair the color of moonlight. The one with the birthmark in the shape of a willow between her breasts. The one whose heart beat like music no human throat should ever sing.
I am not sure I ever believed him. That the house responded to his desires. I think he liked to imagine it did, that when he woke to anything new, anything changed, he told himself he’d dreamed it into existence. I believe the house has always been separate from him, his body a conduit for some greater force he could only pretend to understand.
Since Helene tucked herself away, the house does not move in the day, and it hides itself from me. Like it doesn’t know me. Like I haven’t grown up here beside Helene, day in and day out, waiting for whatever occupied the liminal spaces to notice there was breath inside of me, too.
The windows are dark, and I cannot bring myself to go outside. To see if the sun has winked out, or if something has moved before it, shrouding us, the world our father created for us, in shadow. Is it possible there are other people, other girls who share blood, moving somewhere that is not this house? Another Helene? Another me? Would they clasp one another and whisper secrets that carried the weight of the entire world? I am not sure if the thought is a comfort or a terror. Even in the light, it’s difficult to discern what wears an evil face.
“I have ground you into dust. You are a seed. You are the dry bottom of an evaporated lake. You are the cold, deep of marrow, and I have drawn you out and wet my mouth with your insubstantial, trembling matter.” Helene has places on her body that are the color of a moonless night. The color of a plum. But they are not bruises. My sister is never the one to stumble. To fall. Once, I saw her floating. Her bare feet above the ground, her hands slack at her sides, the fingers twitching as if they could take apart the bones of the house. Of me. Of our father.
My sister does not sleep. Not since our father found the final door that swallowed him. The one we had never seen. The one painted in crimson. When he vanished behind it, I think he imagined he would finally find whatever reward he felt the house had promised him.
Whatever passed over us took only our father, and Helene’s heart beat wetly, and if there was a pattern in it, a melody, I imagine it might be one of despair. Of a longing for return.
But the house eats portions of what is offered. Our father taught us that. To be careful of our words. To hold them within because the walls were listening, holding their breath, and waiting for a single offering. Our father’s body transubstantiated when he crossed the door’s threshold but without the victorious return. Our father has not become a god crowned in glory. He’s only another thing the house taken into itself.
If Helene is prostrating herself, if her body has become holy ground, the house has turned its back. It doesn’t matter that it should belong to her now that our father is gone. My sister who has my hands, my arms. In these ways, I have melded myself with her like a vine. Like a root. She will have to cut me out, and I will follow her as Ruth followed Naomi.
Her skin loosens around her bones, and she folds into her own body as if it was something she could eat, something she could eliminate. I do not think our father is dead. Wherever the door led him, it was not into death.
“I dreamed I slipped you inside out. There was no key swimming in the loose coils of your body. But I could hear him. Behind the door.” Helene sways on her feet, her body heavy with this quest she’s fashioned for herself, but she cannot move. To move would be a kind of betrayal. She cannot forsake her role. She can only be Helene. The chosen daughter. The heiress to a house that should not exist in the living world.
There is a hole in the plaster where Helene has raked her teeth over the surface. She is taking the house into herself, hoping, I’m certain, that by ingesting what she can the house will see her as sister, as mother, as blood. It settles sourly in her stomach and coats her mouth in a thick, white paste.
“Is it you?” she asks me, and I shake my head, hair flying, insistent that I am a master of nothing in our family, in this house. I do not know how to form the words, how to shape the syllables of what I’ve begun to believe about our father and his betrayal and of my own resistance to whatever he has set in motion.
Only when Helene seems to sleep do I dare to whisper this new truth I carry. “He never left.” I picture him laughing at me. At Helene. Silly to imagine it would be so simple. Silly to imagine his daughters could harness the ghosts of his house.
It was particularly cruel, but there was never any softness in Father. Like the vines, the thorns curl further around us every morning, meant to choke, to prick, to draw blood. Helene watches their progression with the kind of passive energy reserved for saints or martyrs. Those who watch their own bloodletting, knowing their oppressors leach only their own holiness from their bodies. There cannot be any pain in that.
In the night, when Helene lets her eyes drift closed but does not sleep, I hunt for the door. The one our father took. But none of these doors bleed. None of the doors I find in the dark lead to any answers; only more rooms, the furniture draped in thin white cloth like slumbering phantasms. For long moments, I sit in the center of those rooms, waiting for the furniture to shake into life and creep toward me, but nothing moves, and I close the doors and check on Helene and lie beside her, my back pressed firmly against the hardwood until I feel numb—my limbs deadened and tingling.
I sing to her, to the vines, to the door, to our father; my voice shakes, the notes settling over our skins. Halfway through, I realize I have forgotten the words, and the melody dies in my throat. I close my eyes because I have already memorized the bend and shape of this room, of my sister, of the emptiness of this house, and there is no need to see our deaths laid out so simply for us in wood, in fabric, in the sighs that come from the walls.
Our father’s bedroom no longer smells of him, of the salt tang of his skin, but of the deep, animal smell of Helene’s sweat. “He told me it would be simple. Like drawing breath,” Helene whispers to the wall, and I turn my body away from her and wonder if she will pull me apart now. My uselessness laid so bare. I cannot help her. I cannot even find the door. I cannot speak the dead tongues of the house.
The night passes, and my sister does not tear me apart, and the vines twine against my calves, holding me weakly in place. It is easy to break free of them, to keep myself from their thorns, but they’ve encased Helene’s chest, her throat, and she sighs and bends into them as if they are an answer to a question she dare not voice.
I know her question. It is burned into my own lungs. Where are you? Why haven’t you gone? When will it be my turn?
I close the door and go to get Helene’s water. I test her questions with my own tongue, but they fall like dead things at my feet, and there is nothing in the silence to answer. Nothing in my sister’s voice belongs to me. I cannot claim any part of her body, not even the pieces of her I have collected in the glass jar. Not even our shared blood, pumping through our veins in thick, reddened surges, cycling again and again through the empty spaces of our hearts.
It rains throughout the day, the pattern beating over our heads as we sit together in the cooled dark of the house and wait for something we cannot name. We can feel it gathering, shimmering somewhere beyond our vision, caught and tangled and choking the damp chlorophyll of the vines. It breathes out when we are breathing in, and Helene tries to hold her breath, tries to catch its slight sounds, but the vines squeeze tighter when she does this, and I was never any good at holding my breath, and even when I try, my heart pounds in my ears, and the rest of the world drops out. Whatever is trying to come through doesn’t want us to hear it, to see its aching, slow movements.
I whip my head around and around, and Helene’s eyes are large and liquid, catching in the dim light, but there is nothing reflected there. No doors opening. No large forms stepping through and straightening into a body that reaches and reaches. A body for which there will never be any end. Our father come with his hands crushed into fists. Our father anointed in shadow, wearing the weight of his daughter’s like the heaviest of garments.
As if we needed his crumbs. As if we needed the remnants of his shriveled heart.
Inside of that sound, my anger roars into life. “We can’t stay here,” I tell Helene, and in the distance, there is the dulled crack of lightning, but I do not see it as an omen.
“He’s coming through. And he’ll take me into the house. He’ll show me,” she says, and a tendril shoots along her neck, curling against her collarbone as if it could pierce the thin flesh there and flood her sternum with green.
“Look at what he’s left us, Helene. This house. Does any part of it tell you he’s interested in sharing? We’ve been left behind. Even if he comes back, he won’t see us. We won’t matter compared to what he’s found. We aren’t magic. We never have been.”
“If you say another word, I’ll tear out your tongue.” Helene hisses, bares her teeth at me, and there are thorns against the pale pink of her gums. She tips her head, her hair falling across her face, so I cannot see her eyes. “He should have pinched your nose shut when you were born.”
Her arms are wasted. The length of her concaved into itself, the bones stretched against skin, her vertebrae sprouting tight knots up her back. It would be so easy to pluck her up and carry her out of this place, but there are still her teeth. She would not allow anything other than bloodshed.
That night, I try to sleep as I listen to the vines breathe instead of Helene and wonder if it would be better this way. For her to draw the life out of me in one great act of violence rather than waiting for the vines to choke us, or for our father to return and create for me a tomb from hands I no longer recognize. I pull the blankets around me, and they are warm, and I sweat, and I smell the scent of myself, and in the morning, my eyes ache with not sleeping, and my head feels swollen, but I go downstairs. I get Helene her water. I wish for poison.
The deaths available to us would be messy. Painful. I cannot face such a death, and I am shamed by my own cowardice, that even in the bravery of contemplating such an act, I am still tethered to this body by my fear. Helene would laugh to hear it, so I fold this secret tight into the hidden parts of myself and hope instead the vines will kill her so I do not have to. If they are merciful, they will take me next.
Throughout the afternoon, Helene eats the portions of the house she can reach, and I wonder that the walls do not fall into tremors as it tries to throw off my sister’s careful, insistent scraping. Whatever heart lies in the center of the house must still be buried too deep. She is no true threat. Her mouth is filled with grit; it amounts to nothing. Helene must understand this, but she doesn’t stop, and I watch her craft a hole for herself in the wall, watch as she creeps inside.
That night, Helene falls into a fairy tale sleep. A princess who will not wake no matter what the damsel who has come to save her does. Screaming her name, pulling her hair, kissing the green tint of her mouth, biting at the soft flesh of her upper arm, none of it is worth the energy it siphons from me. She slumbers, and I work quickly, untangling the snarl of vines and thorns from her inert body, ignoring the pricks against my own flesh, the slow trickle of blood.
“Count it as an offering,” I say. And for good measure, I lift my voice and hope my father can hear. “Then kindly fuck off.”
When I lift Helene’s body, she weighs so little that I ache for the woman she used to be. The depth of her. How her presence filled whatever container it found itself in and threatened to swell, to drown, with every breath she drew. I force myself to stand, to step forward, and still, she sleeps against me, her head tipped back so I can see the milk of her throat, the veins so blue as they push to escape. Around us, the house makes no sound.
I pause, waiting for the walls to crash in, for the floors to rise in a great tidal wave and swallow us, for the doors to close, for the windows to rain glass over our heads, but there is nothing except for the slow creak of a door opening from somewhere within the great belly of the house.
“Helene?” the voice calls, and I run.
Through the kitchen, and the great room where we ate breakfasts; the lemon curd our father made the color of a young sun spread in thick gobs over dense scones, then toward the great oak door that carried the prints of all of us, and over the threshold and out into the glittering night.
Our father put Helene to sleep for him. His Beauty. He would have her sleep for a thousand years in the bower he created, only to return when he wanted and strip away everything that belonged to her. To pare her away until all that remained was a single, burning bone. There was no holiness, no evil in such a diminishing, but we were his daughters, and we were not his alone.
I run with my sister tucked against my chest, my lungs and thighs burning, but I do not drop her. I dare not let her body touch the ground, the arching, needing roots and leaves that thirst for the girl I’ve stolen away.
Behind me, a voice howls into the wind, and I run faster. There are hours until sunrise. I will run until my feet bleed, until I cannot feel anything except our hearts beating against one another.
Again, our father lifts his voice; it is more distant, and I understand something he didn’t think of when he vanished behind that door. He cannot leave the house. His salvation has become his prison. I could laugh, but there is no breath for it.
I will find a hole to curl our bodies into, and we will sleep together, our arms wound round each other, our legs and hands undistinguishable from the other.
And when my sister finally wakes, I will whisper her name in her ear.
“You are Helene,” I will tell her. “And you belong with me.”
Originally published in Shadows and Tall Trees, Volume 8.