My older sister is my spirit guide. We are hurtling down the road on her red, ten-speed bike, me in the back, her in command, heading toward the green hills and the rolling amber wheat fields on the edge of town, glee squeezing out the corner of my eyes in tiny little tears.
I am seven, and she is fourteen. We are going to climb to the top on a dirt path between the hot, expansive gold, and the thick, cool trees that grow near the thin stream of water that has almost been swallowed up completely by late July. We get to slide down the hill, catching ourselves among, under, and over branches and vines, slipping, squealing, screaming, and laughing, just like the lost boys. We are part of the earth, the stars bursting out of our chests connecting us to the sky. When the day winds down and my sister is tired, she pushes her bike as we walk home. We grow quiet, and she teaches me that day dreaming is when you imagine good things in your mind.
In the corner of the basement, in my sister’s room, we listen to Lucky Star, by Madonna, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun, by Cyndi Lauper with the red hair and the checkerboard shaved in the side. I want red hair with a checkerboard, and she can’t shave my head, but my sister applies red mouse to my hair, and I think I might be a star.
In the evening my younger brother and sister and I sleep in a row next to her bed holding hands. We are protected by Matisse’s gold fish, a graphic woman with large red lips on the telephone, and a statue of the virgin Mary. We are protected by each other’s skin, and bony knees, and heavy, warm thighs laid across each other’s backs. Under piles of blankets that smell like years of siblings. In this magical cave in the belly of our house, the demons my father has told us are lurking cannot touch us. It does not matter if he found a mysterious broken window lock in an upstairs room. We are far away.
Before, when I am five, it is evening and I am alone in my younger sister’s and my room upstairs. Our room has a closet. The closet is attached to the closet of my brothers’ room. The closet is a secret passageway. I hear something in my closet and freeze on the floor where I am playing with my toys. As the door creaks open, a leg, and then a body appear covered in a long embroidered, red dress with things hanging off of it, tassels and beads. Then a head, and it is my older sister’s head, and there is a big black scarf that sparkles over her head and covers part of her face, and I can’t see if it’s really my sister, because she looks like a fairy, or a star fallen from outer space, and my heart is in my throat, and she says, “I am your fairy Godmother.”
She is terrifying.
Magic is terrifying.
Before that I am two, or three, and we live somewhere else far south, in the desert. She takes me in the stroller into the dry, open expanse of brown and pale yellow. In the distance, formidable red-rock ridges reach their fingers into the turquoise-blue sky. We meet a man on the road from the earth. The man spits in his hand and takes my sister’s hand in his. He wants to take her away with him, into the earth, but my sister is too smart. She tells him she must take me home, and then she will return to him. But we hide in our house while our mother keeps post with the vacuum.
In the New Mexico desert, my sister is ten. She comes home from school with a sheet of paper announcing an overnight camping trip her class will be taking. But we don’t have a sleeping bag or enough money to buy one. That spring night, the hot winds arrive blowing up dust, and in the morning the sun shines down on one rumpled sleeping bag lying partially unzipped in our backyard, as if it had been tossed open by a waking spirit who abandoned it there just for my sister.
“Angels,” my father said. It was left by angels.
I am five. We live in Seattle, before our final home in eastern Washington. It is autumn, and we pick black berries in the back yard, and along the alleys. Thick evergreens rise up behind fire orange shrubs and scarlet leafed bushes as we make our way through the wet, fish-tinged air. Above us, black crows caw menacingly to each other their old bird stories that send a shiver down my spine. My older brother says to watch out, they liked to take black berries from small children, and sometimes they take small children too. My throat closes a little, and my pulse quickens as the bird sound punctures the air, “Caaaaaw!” I peer into the treetops, and the sky beyond, a billowing gray sheet blurred murky shades of blue at the edges. A soft, dim glow globe around us.
My older brother and sister reveal to me that I am from the moon. They say this together and I don’t know it’s their game. They tell me it is no big deal. Not to worry about it. It is okay if I live with them. I’m just not really one of them.
Maybe they caught me falling out of the sky.
I am nine. My sister takes my cousins and me out her bedroom window at midnight. My younger brother and sister are still upstairs in bed. We have to take turns climbing up her dresser and squeezing through the small window out into the black night, and we are free. We have to be quiet, but in a few blocks we begin giggling and jabbing at each other, and someone laughs too loud or screams and my sister hushes us. She takes us through black alleys, and long grass that tickles my ankles, and gravel that I don’t see and slide on until we are at the store which is a glowing box full of candy, and we can all pick one, which might be what heaven is like.
When I am ten she lets me taste the wine coolers she keeps in her closet that taste like strawberries and watermelons and dance on my tongue. I go to the fair at night with her and her friends and I drink those drinks hidden inside a Big Gulp cup, and they are laughing and jabbing each other and swirling together into the stars above us.
One night in her room my sister shows me a secret, and it is a big red spot on her neck she has hidden under a scarf, and it is called a hickey. It must be burning. I do not understand how she explains a boy put it there.
In the mirror, in her underwear, she turns from side to side and asks me if she is fat, and I shake my head. “No.” After this we get to look at her clothes, and big earrings, and all kinds of necklaces, and wide brimmed hats. She lets me pick out clothes in the catalogue with the letters E-S-P-I-R-T across the shirts, and my heart swells imagining them coming to me from somewhere far away, like magic.
The asking about the fat comes back again. And I don’t care about skin and fat and are these pants too tight. I only want the music and the laughing, and the brightly colored clothes. The making up good stories in our heads. My chest hot when she looks at me in the mirror as she makes my hair red.
I don’t know where she ends and I begin.
I am eleven and she will leave our house soon. She takes me to the park where I meet her boyfriend who gave her red hickeys and who has red hair. They hold hands and kiss, and I walk behind them and pretend not to look. Later she takes me to the mall for ice cream. She tells me we will always have ice cream, but I know there will always be boyfriends now too. And mouths kissing. We listen to U2 in her rattletrap car that lurches when she shifts. This song is a sad kind of magic. When it grows late, we stand outside looking at the crescent slice of moon glowing against so much darkness, and I know my sister is showing me another place to find bright magic. Her eyes look back to the ground and her mouth tightens as she talks about her boyfriend.
At night we still sleep close together in her bed, I with my knees tucked in her back. But now bodies take the place of stars.
Bernadette Martonik has work in The Manifest Station, The Extraordinary Project, and Stone Pacific Zine. She is working on an essay collection and lives in Seattle with her husband and their dog, Bandit.