For a number of years now, friends and family have been encouraging me to submit an entry into the Toronto Star’s annual Short Story Contest. I’ve resisted that for a number of reasons, probably not the least of them being that I was just plain afraid of failure. This year, I decided to face my fears and do so. I told very few people, because I found it all quite unnerving.
The entry I sent in was among the only short stories I’ve ever written; it was purely fictional and was an exercise in stretching the limits of what I felt I could do. It was harder than I thought, coming up with an idea, coming up with characters that I’d only be with a short while. I’m used to novel writing—my characters stay with me for years on end—so the idea of investing self and time on characters that would pass through within a day or so was odd.
It was driving out to the farm one winter morning and came upon a young girl, maybe eleven or twelve, waiting for her bus. Some of the other local kids were waiting for their bus, as well, the same bus, I assumed, but the girl stood off on the other side of a driveway. For some reason, I got the feeling that the separation was of her own choosing. For a brief moment, our eyes met, and she waved at me.
In that moment, this story started to come to life. As I did chores, I found myself thinking about that girl. Wondering who the other kids were. As I fed the horses, my mind wandered back to my own life at that age. Awkward and sullen, hungry and excited for life.
I thought of my Dutch heritage and decided that I’d add some of that to the story as well. I started talking with a few friends. We discussed that weird sense of being Dutch-but-not-Dutch and how that was different for those of us who do not live in our childhood communities any longer. One friend spoke of how, when her family came from Holland, the gap between generations spread too quickly. One’s mother shared how her sister had, in the 60s, got caught up with “those hippie sorts”.
We spoke English and mixtures of Dutch and Friesian in my home as I grew up. It was a rich tapestry of language that I’m sure was the spark to my love of words today. We crossed over into English worlds and back into the homey sound of Dutch. I still live in those two worlds much of the time. As I thought of it, I found it all quite tasty.
I am both older and younger sister. I liked the idea of writing a character who fits in the middle of history in a family she loves, and yet aches to find her place in the world. I have been a rotten sister, sometimes, and thought of all the ways in which we fail those we love.
I thought, too of the old ghost stories we’d tell one another in grammar school–how the old barn at the edge of our school property was used for all manner of evil. I thought of my first kiss. Of growing up and wanting not to. I thought of that girl at the bus stop.
The story grew. I wrote it out. I sent it to those I love and trust the most. And then, sick with fear and worry (I was turning my words over to strangers!), I put it all in a manilla envelope and pimped it out to The Toronto Star.
I didn’t win, (obviously this isn’t called “I Nailed It!”), but in the process, I’ve come to like these three sisters. In time, they might become more than just a short story. I’ll put them in a file.
But for now, I thought I’d share my entry here:
“It’s haunted, you know.” She says this as if it will deter me from following, one floppy clomp at a time, in her footsteps. “The woman who used to live there went completely crazy. Killed her entire family.” My sister, the older by four years, throws this over her shoulder as if it will cause me to turn back, homeward through the heavily-snowed fields.
Behind us, Anneke, our littlest sister half walks, half jumps into the gaping holes my footsteps have left for her to fill. She struggles, being the youngest, and though kindness dictates that I ought to somehow overlap the ones in front of me, making the holes bigger, her steps shorter, I do not.
“Is it really haunted, Jacoba?” she asks me. We all three stop walking.
“Wat zei je net?” our eldest sister asks angrily, “What did you just say?” The oldest sister scowls, delivers a speech to us about the importance of using our English names. Our Canadian names. I ignore the fact that her initial response was in Dutch and continue walking.
I am called Jenny in the English world outside of our home. “Jenny,” a weak, water-coloured name that I loathe. At school I have lied, told the girls in my class that my real name is “Gypsy”. They take this with skepticism; yet, remain distant, fearful that I may cast a curse upon them. When mother hears of this and threatens me with father’s belt, I, wild haired, dark eyes flashing, dare her to stop me.
We have a rich, multi-colour existence. Our parents carried with them upon their arrival in Canada, great hope of the newness of life here in the land of cruel winters and lush, mosquito- hazed summers. We sisters, born into this, the True North, are strong, and free, my father tells us with great pride. I nod, play along with this stern statement that speaks to some unbreakable quality that I do not have. And, although my face remains calm, each time he says this, flocks of birds scatter within me, startled and circling.
Our English is broken, our vocabulary streaked with Dutch words that we hide, somewhere deep within us when we cross the threshold of our home. Vader becomes “Dad”, a word we giggle at and force from our lips in awkward pretense until one forbidden day we see Star Wars and realize why kids laughingly approach me in the hallways at school, breathing heavily and calling “Luke, I am your Father!”
We lose bits of ourselves as we leave home each day. Our beloved Moeder becomes “Mom”, which sounds coarse and lonely on my tongue. Beyond our doors, we are Canadian. We don’t talk about the foods we eat, the broodpap with its thick sugary crust, the rich, heavy oliebollen (they call them “Dutchies” at the Tim Hortons, a name which brushes my cheeks scarlet), we are not to speak of rookvlees, the delicately shaven horsemeat we buy from the Delicatessen in a corner nook of the village.
At a school camp out, I compound my shame by asking who stole my oonderbroek before I see, hanging up on the flagpole, my coarse Dutch underwear on display for all to see. Unlike our parents, whose culture is clearly defined and whose accents and memories of the Homeland and The War unite them with something of legend and mystery, my sisters, (in their blonde hair, blue-eyed supremacy) and I wander through life as part of a patchwork quilt which never seems as shiny and new as our friends’ store-bought lives.
My dark hair sets me apart from all who live in my house and sentences me to the feeling that I am destined for sorrow.
We continue trudging through the snow, mismatched ants marching in a tangled line. Our heavy overcoats weigh us down, knitted caps itching our hairline and smelling like wet-dog. When we are certain that Moeder can no longer see us from the window, we quickly dart across the train tracks, heading not to the skating pond as Soukje, now Susan has told my mother, but toward the abandoned farm house where a sullen teenaged boy will pretend he is a man as he mauls my sister under her sloppy winter coat.
• • •
At night, after the lights have gone out, Susan sneaks out to meet teenagers from the public school. I wait up, sick with worry, wondering what I will tell Vader and Moeder if they open the door and find only me, cascading into darkness. Wonder what will happen if, like the girl on the NEWS, she is lured away and cut up into small pieces. When Susan returns, she is breathless and brilliant. She tells me of boys and parties, of dancing and The Movies and how, when I am older, I, too, will live in the real world.
I do not want it after she has touched it.
One day, Vader catches her as he returns home from the town meeting. He is disappointed; his kind eyes sad and uncertain about this daughter whose red lips tell him lies. Moeder is angry. “Hoer!” she says, slapping my sister’s face.
“This from a woman who takes pride in a country where women sit in windows, advertising their lack of virginity?” my sister asks, shocking Moeder into silence. They argue like this, my sister’s face branded with the outline I see echoed in my Moeder’s bright red palm.
Vader, voice deep and rich, speaks words in the mother tongue, soothing all angers. He sways his hips, dancing around the kitchen like a broad-shouldered woman, “How much is that doggie in the window?” he sings, and in spite of herself, Moeder smiles. He makes my sister kiss him on the cheek and dances around with her red lipstick, swooning like a girl.
They laugh, even Moeder and Anneke, though she knows nothing of lipstick and virgins.
I return to my room and punch the balled up pillow that lies beside me in the big bed, pretending to be my sleeping sister.
• • •
The snow is thick with regret. The youngest of us trudges behind. I can hear her, now and again, sniffling, wiping at her nose with a mitten soaked after numerous falls in the snow. Struggling to keep up, she drags herself along, the crinkling of a boot lined with a milk bag annoying me. “Stop it!” I hiss. She flops down to the ground, giving in to a full-fledged crying fit. Mercilessly, I continue on ahead, then stop and with the cruelty of an ice storm, pelt her with snow. “Get up. GET UP!”
I am angry.
I am jealous of this sister ahead of me whose four extra years of life affords her entry into the things of life I will always come into after the fact, always dragging the younger behind.
“Wait here,” Susan says as we victoriously emerge from the tree line behind the old farmhouse. Before a com- plaint reaches my tongue, the red lipstick is pulled from her pocket. It slices across her mouth violently as mine hangs open in blackened silence. She pulls off her coat, revealing a shirt I have not seen before, its deep V unable to hold in her modesty. “You like it?” she says, then blows me a kiss before running across the snowy yard.
In my hand, her heavy coat feels like a magician’s cloak.
The youngest whines about the cold and the snow. Asks about the skating pond and cries when I cut through her hope with the soured rage of the left-behind. Feeling badly, I suggest that we create a snowman. She brightens at that, and together, we build a handsome fellow. When she is busy finding sticks for his arms, I paint my lips with Susan’s forgotten lipstick and kiss his frozen, invisible mouth.
Because she is the baby, the lieveling, because she is special in a way that means broken (there is no word that I know for this mixture, no English that contains the mysterious secrecy of not-right), I should love her best. I should laugh at her silly, chubby giggles and rejoice with Vader and Moeder about every innocence she brings into our lives. She is beautiful and lost, this youngest sister of mine. Fairy of the morning, her blonde hair cast upon the pillow where her nights are spent dreaming of happy things—magical things that do not bring unknown terrors so close you can taste them.
She is sweet and simple and loving. I should love her best. On Sundays, as we sit in church, Susan and I giggle and pass the Bible to one another, underlining verses with our fingernails—We have a young sister, her breasts are not yet grown. This religion of cruelty I save for my youngest sister will leave no deeper scar on her than the imprint of my fingernail on the page, and yet, I am guilty. I pray that I will become a sister who is more kind.
She needs to be cared for, Moeder tells me, this is mine to ensure.
And so, each day at school, I guard her from the bullies. I help her to eat her lunch, to peel her orange, and tell her the stories Vader has shared: of days during The War when oranges were a currency of their own. When my classes are in session, my stomach aches, thinking of the many things going on in my sister’s classroom, things that foreboding imagines but cannot control.
I ask to go to the washroom but travel the hallways to the little school. I am caught by the Principal as I am peeking into the kindergarten room. He tries to make me return to my classroom, and is met with sorrow and rage thick as stew. Helpless to explain the weight upon my shoulders, I kick and scream and refuse to move.
I am to protect this girl who walks in a world she cannot touch. When I have failed and she is hurt at recess, her skinned knees burn against my conscience. She misses the bus and I bang my head against the headboard, softly, silently in the night (stupid, stupid, stupid!). I lose sight of her at The Fair and my heart bursts with dread. And hope.
I make no friends; I am to be her best.
I am the bad girl, the dark sister, sandwiched between Susan’s red lipsticked certainty, and Anneke’s porcelain doll beauty.
• • •
When Susan comes back into the yard, her face is faded and grey as the skies overhead. “Give me that,” she says, grabbing her coat and ripping the lipstick from my hand. “You are such an idiot,” she spits, to me or to herself, I do not know.
Behind us, the youngest believes that we are going to the skating pond. Her energy is renewed by imaginings of joy, and she keeps up with us, holding the back of my winter coat, the steady knocking of her hand against my leg keeping time with the questions in my head.
I turn to the old farmhouse in time to see The Boy running out, his shirt ripped, and then, another form, a dark haired girl with a football jacket covering her bare shoulders. “Sue! I’m sorry…” he yells, but his voice is cut off by the sound of the train.
I turn, whipping my head forward; my sister is gone.
For one frozen, white-blooded moment, I am certain that she has fallen (jumped?) beneath the train. A scream rises in my throat, a whiteness cloaks me. For one bitter breath, I wonder if she is gone now, if I can have her place as oldest, if I will no longer exist, this middle girl no one knows. I wonder if all I will have of her is the taste of her lipstick heavy and foreign on my lips.
Then, as the train passes in a whirl of noise and clarity, I see her, standing on the other side of the tracks, face held high, eyes blue and dangerous, strong and free. Slowly, with grace and beauty so stunning it catches my breath, she raises both hands, giving the finger to The Boy and, I think, all that it has cost her.
Our eyes meet. And we laugh.
“Come on, Gypsy,” she calls to me, and there are tears on her face—tears from the shame of boys who are false, and tears from the laughter of knowing we are strong and free. I smile, turn to the youngest and kiss her chubby cheek, leaving an imprint of kindness.
We hike over the field and then, outside of our house, we flop on our backs, the three of us, holding hands as the snow falls softly to blanket our sorrow. Silence gathers us into itself, insulated from all that we are; all we could not find words to say, each of us bearing the stain of red lipstick upon our faces. Branded as sisters.
In the distance, a shot is fired, scattering the geese from the river. They fly upward, scattered, outrage and screaming for all to hear.
And in time, as years pass, like buckshot, we too spread into the world at a frenzied, dangerous pace, each to lives that do not connect with the others. Susan to her world of sleek black coats and lovers that hold no warmth. She takes back the name she once hid from, hanging it harshly above her gallery door—Soujke, the “kje” telling the world that she is different, note- worthy, untouchable, strong and free.
Our younger sister, cautious, hungry, trying desperately to fit into the footsteps of anyone bigger, anyone more solid and sure-footed, starving eyes always asking, “who shall I be?” Her future is simple, hopeful, filled with nights of sweet dreams, her blonde hair golden as a gentle summer’s day.
And me. Walking, ever walking, with eyes on the untold stories, dark am I yet lovely; interpreting a language I do not understand.
© 2012 juliet dewal