for my sister


I think maybe it's a tree. This hurt. Maybe that's it. A pin oak or crabapple. A basket of virgin's bower. It's Spanish moss gnawing the limbs. It's kudzu. Yes.

Or maybe something useful like vanilla or coffee trees. Something Scandinavian I can't pronounce. Maybe it's the way some keys fit in a lock but won't turn. The VCR that blinks and blinks. It's my sister bleaching her hair, painting her nails green. It's how you're so quick to touch me now, like we're family, like you know the way I write about trees.


I start to think there's something more. Something like the Easter egg I sniffed out in the toe of my stepfather's shoe. How my boyfriend split me open in the Travelodge when I was fifteen. Or the way I flirt with the man from Cambridge at every party. Half a beer and I'd screw him if he asked.

And still every time I bury my nose in your neck I want to tell you I love you. And I think I might, at least in the way I was taught. I think I would make you salads, paint your walls. I think I would trim your boxwood, tell you about the azaleas in Columbia, the house where they grew nearly patriotic. The daffodils that bloomed for my sister's birthday. The way my stepfather would call me an idiot, a chore. Teach you the algebra of his belt clasp. Or tell you the story about snow. The one snow that lasted.


It hurts. Yes. In the way I'd leave my desk job in Boston. How I'd sit in my car at lunch, how you could wear the heat, the sun like a sponge on the skin. It reminded me of the South, how my sister and I couldn't swim till it was 80. How we'd drape our feet in the pool or sometimes doze on a raft, safe on technicality.

There I'm thirteen, my shoulders sucking the sun. My bathing suit blue, so blue. Where are you when I tell you how he chucked the bathroom sink onto the lawn? Or the day my mother left him, how he punched a hole through the living room wall, his fingers as bloody as if it'd been my face? Were you there? Were you watching through the late dogwood, through the mulberry with its purple fruit? Are you here when you touch me, when I tell you about your trees.


Maybe not trees. Maybe a fog horn after the wreck. A siren after the storm. Maybe the forgotten crab trap we pulled up as kids. (The shells don't change when they die. They just don't move. And don't move.) Maybe it's the bull gator that rises from the marsh, the way we told everyone we almost died the day we found a rattlesnake in our bushes. How we ran like it'd chase us. How I stopped when I lost my breath.

I'd never give you this the bodies of the dogs he shot, the note from my mother's lover left errantly on a desk, how my hands learned the story of my body from others.


No, it's not trees. It's other people's children. It's birds that don't have names. It's the strip of 20 through the Midlands Columbia in the summertime. How it knows me. How it's always known me.

It's how I'm destined to be a woman alone at a hotel in the South, drinking Diet Coke, eating lo mien. Watching women's basketball, though I hate it. Watching the ticker to see if the Braves are bad. And I look at myself in that room, and I look, and I'm sad you're not there, but that my stepfather is. And my sister, pregnant and sixteen, she's there, saying my name as if I touched her, I would know her. Understand the way her father killed us both. And I think, maybe, maybe we're both buried in garbage bags in our neighbors' backyard. And that their children will find us, rotted and green, one day. I think maybe their children will find us. And that they will scream. They will find us. And then we will scream.

  -Erin Elizabeth Smith