It starts when the dog dies, a wheezing Wolfhound with two paralyzed legs. My mother wraps his body in a sheet and puts it in the hearth. Then she packs up his bed and rawhide bones and takes off with them. The house shakes when she leaves it. For days, every room smells of singed hair.
Next, my leather gloves disappear. They aren’t in my room, or in the hall closet among the row of shoes nestled beneath the robes and animal furs. I go down to the basement and sift through the stacks of cardboard boxes. The space is full of junk: baby blankets, broken toys and rancid incense.
One night, I wake to the sounds of furtive rummaging. I think there’s a rat in the house and head downstairs with a baseball bat. I find my mother pawing through the hall closet on her hands and knees, half-buried by objects that are reduced to vague shapes in the low light. She looks up at me with gleaming, animal eyes and freezes.
My sister ate the fruit like a red leather ball, full of bloody teeth.
When she was gone, the dog howled inconsolably. His lament lasted hours, a day. Then he fell down the stairs and ruined his legs.
We live in a house with a lopsided tower full of dusty, precious things. All kinds of flying creatures circle the tower’s peak. If you sleep in the room at the very top, their shrieking will keep you up all night. I know because my mother would punish me and make me spend the night up there when I was little.
Fields surround the house with grass thick as a girl’s hair and flowers with petals that form tiny lips to drink the rain. There is no one and nothing for miles, just the fields and forest beyond.
My mother used to make corn everything: corn tamales wrapped in corn shuck, corn chowder, cold corn salad with black beans. She planted varieties in the garden and they grew high as the garage: sweet yellow, blue, a black-red, and white with fat kernels. Once, I asked her why she didn’t grow roses or tomatoes like other mothers did. She looked at me the way she always does whenever I suggest she do something normal people do. Then she picked at a hangnail, stripping the skin in a curl, and flicked it into the air.
My sister had hair like pheasant feathers. She was skinny and slightly bow-legged. It made her seem delicate, always wrapped in filmy robes with her nipples visible. She had pearls for teeth. Her laughter was tinkling bells.
She takes my clothes. That’s how I’ve come to think of it: not as a giving away, but a taking. She puts them in trash bags while I’m at school and drives with the car full of them to those places where people give away things they don’t want and then they are sold to poor people or teenagers. I come home to find only the wire skeletons of closet hangers. A few days later, I see a girl at school wearing one of my t-shirts.
As the house empties out, it begins to echo. The sounds of the things that circle the tower grow louder. All night they scream. I hear the woosh of their leather wings.
Once, she gets drunk and I ask her about my father. She says men aren’t worth speculating about. Then she fits her entire fist into her mouth and moans.
I get a tattoo of the fruit that killed my sister. It’s on my hip, just below the waistline of my boys’ Levi’s. The lines are red, insinuating the outer form and the bejeweled cavern. I get it done by the mall with my two gold-haired friends who are like vapid, giggling handmaids. They belonged to my sister but they follow me around now for lack of anything better to do.
Someday, I’ll slip off my pants in front of a lover who will ask me about it. Or maybe not.
I smoke cigarettes behind the school while my handmaids watch. The cigarettes are foul and satisfying. I like holding embers between my fingertips.
When my sister disappeared, so did my mother. For months, maybe a year she wandered and I had the house and the car to myself. I took the dog with me everywhere and he filled the entire backseat. Each day it snowed. The flakes covered everything like dust.
When she came back, she was a hag with swollen, blistered feet. I didn't know who she was.
After my clothes, she takes my bed and I have to sleep on the floor. All the other furniture is already gone. I don’t know how she got it out of the house—if someone came to take it, if she burned it, or broke it into pieces.
One night, watching me eat, she snatches the food from my mouth.
My sister’s fingernails—soft moonstone. Her eyes, the color shifting in the light.
She was picking flowers in the field when she disappeared. The ground opened up and she tumbled down into it. Weeks later, they found her body in the river that circles the earth and passes like a drain through the dead places, her fingertips stained purple-red.
The snow. The clouds of it could billow and twist. If I stared out the window long enough, I saw in it the shapes of faces I could recognize, or not, depending on my mood. And animals: deer, a dove. Once, a poppy, blossoming.
Every afternoon, the sky turned a velvet gray-blue. The color filled the house and made the white of the walls glow. Snowplows scraped past on the narrow strip of road.
When she came back, her teeth were gray as if she’d been eating ash.
The last thing she takes from me is my breath. Gasping, I tumble backwards and hit my head on the marble floor. She isn’t trying to kill me, she says. But she can’t tell me why she did it. There’s nothing to pack up. All I have are the clothes I’m wearing.
There are cruel words on my tongue like thistle. I swallow them down into my stomach where they will make me sick. She watches me go. She has cinders for eyes. The house shudders behind me.
Outside, the grass ripples. A few snowflakes drift by like afterthoughts and disappear.
Lindsay Merbaum is a wanderer, ex-teacher, and highly social introvert. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College where she spent time doing Lorrie Moore impressions. Her stories have appeared in a number of magazines and journals such as Gargoyle, Epiphany, Dzanc Books Best of the Web and PANK. Her work has also been nominated for several awards which she didn’t win. Currently, she is completing a novel about witches, prostitutes, and a volcano, inspired by the four years she spent in Ecuador. She lives in San Francisco.