A pair. A pair of girls, of women: sisters. A pair of shoes, of pearls. A piano. A pair of woolen coats.
Two scenes, a stage. Broken window, broken branch. Behind the broken window is a cold basement, walls lined with wooden crates. Crates that were once full of hard things like shoe buckles, and whiskey, and tender things, too, like cradles and cotton diapers. Against the wet stone there is your father’s piano. Mahogany brown and upright. Keys white as teeth. Perhaps the window isn’t broken. Perhaps it is only coated with crackling frost. It is late November, after all.
Here in front of the basement window, Linnea the sister-head, the mad one, she holds your hand, loosely, like a doll would. Here she holds your hand, and there you hide your hand.
There in front of the woods, where it is cold, where they placed you like furniture, a pair of arm-chairs: maybe you warm yourself, maybe you touch lightly a small something.
A yellow photograph, a scratch on your nail, a piece of grass. Do you imagine you are somewhere else, knowing full well that this is it? Your eyelids droop with languor. But your back knows something else and straightens against cold air slicing at your neck and ankles. Your shoulders straighten against guilt. You could be going to church, to a family dinner. Though it is a serious occasion, Linnea is convinced this is a game, a joke she doesn’t get.
Linnea does not finger anything from the past; she holds tightly to herself. Her eyes are confused about the present, about the future. Her eyes are merry, in that they are quick, skeptical. Her neck pulls away, stiffly, like a scientist’s. She does not understand what a photograph is. But she suspects it is some kind of theft. She lurches like a dog, afraid of what they might take from her, what they might make her do.
Here your woolen coat consumes you, and there your white legs emerge like lovely tusks, like soft swords. Your sheer panty-hose are loose, soft, scented with powder. You hide a rip above the knee. You are worried all day that the rip will show, increase.
Linnea wears velveteen pumps, and you your mesh peep-toes. Linnea wears her white floral pin made of ivory. She slides away, slants away. This photograph is not of her. You look straight on, holding your new leather hand purse. You sit delicately upon the fallen beech tree that is consumed by nests of lichen and mushroom blooms. You sit as if you belong there, in your dress-clothes and overcoat, all upon the forest-floor.
The window isn’t broken, the tree is not dead. Here sit, here stand, like a pair of animals, like a pair of twins. Give us the same hair, the same neck. The same ears.
You look to see if you can find something that is yours: if the photo is of you, for you and if so, where it has gone. You notice the white mouth beneath the camera, how it twinges, the lips curling to the side. A momentary smile: a twitch. You slowly close your hand around itself, onto what’s yours.
Here, you’ve been dressed. You know what’s yours and what’s hers. You’ve been told. The coat with the white buttons. The boots with the nice laces that go all the way to the top. You look because he is your cameraman.
There, those are the woods behind the house. Before you settled into your pose, you looked behind you to see deeply, and try and find the edge, the other side. The trees went on forever, naked, white, and staring. You look and you looked.
Here you are five and she is six. You are twenty-five and she is twenty-six. You have four children. Here she loves you; she protects you. Like a mindless brother.
You watched her hands, and walked inside them as they traveled and touched the world.
Remember. Your father was away. He sent a gift, signed, “For the girls.” It was a white communion dress. You did not dare to try it on to see which girl it fit. But you watched as Linnea touched the lace-work, the satin under-slip, the silk collar. You supped on that dress, little drunken eyefuls of that little bride-dress. You dreamt of father, your eternal groom, coming home, all in black wool, pulling you into his coat, consuming you, into his warm quiet power.
Mother put you in the white dress for a photograph you never saw, for a coming-of-age you cannot remember.
It must be Thanksgiving; it must be a Holiday, a ceremony or a celebration.
Here, put your hands together, just like that, hold them. Hold still.
There, now. Now you are closer. Bodies warming like burning logs, swallowing all the oxygen in the house, laughing and falling down together like ashes. Linnea crackles and chatters, and you are mute, turned grey, like a room without air.
Valerie Arvidson is a fiction writer, multimedia artist, and teacher. She holds a BA from Dartmouth College in Creative Writing and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. Her fiction has appeared online with PenTales and Apt. She has also published creative nonfiction in Hunger Mountain. She is now working on a book of prose-poems, stories, illustrations and photographs based on her Scandinavian heritage.