by Karissa Chen
Jolene wakes up every night, her gown heavy with sweat. Sometimes she dreams she is the one drowning. She claws the black waters of the lake to find it muddy, solid. She thrashes, kicks, only to discover too late she is headed down instead of up. She grasps at reeds and they cut through her fingers, the blood warm against the iciness of the water. She breathes and chokes and her lungs burn and she is dropping down and down toward a bottom she cannot see.
Other nights she dreams of Callie: Callie falling, Callie’s chubby hands flailing, Callie choking, Callie gurgling, Callie’s eyes bugging, Callie whispering her name—Jojo Jojo Jojo Jojo—a watery plea that circles Jolene’s ears even once she is awake.
In some of these dreams, Jolene saves her. In some of these dreams, Jolene runs and leaps into the lake, finds her sister’s arms, and hauls her out. In these dreams, Jolene is so relieved she begins weeping when they’re safely on shore, and Callie comforts her: It’s okay, Jojo, I’m okay. But when Jolene looks up to kiss her baby sister’s brow, she finds a bloated, rotted thing smiling back at her.
Most of the time, Jolene dreams the way it happened. Callie slipping, not with a big splash but a small plop, like a heavy stone dropped into a basin. No scream, just a watery hole opening up and swallowing her sister. Jolene staring. Jolene watching her sister’s chubby hands wild and small. Callie’s blond locks fanning brown like seaweed. The quiet struggle, long seconds of sputter and thrash, and then no more. Only then does Jolene run toward the lake’s edge. Only then does she jump in. But it’s too late. She’s already awake.
Callie was named not for the instrument or the muse, but for the flower. The day after Momma gave birth to her, Daddy rushed in the bedroom door, his arms overflowing with the white blossoms, their yellow tongues hanging out. Beautiful flowers for my beautiful girls, he said, dropping them in Momma’s lap. When Momma asked what the strange flowers were, Daddy told her callie lilies. He sat on the edge of the bed, watching his new daughter, brushing the faint corn-silk threads on her tiny head. Momma said it would only be fitting their joy should be named after such a thing of beauty. No one noticed Jolene watching the three of them from the doorway, Momma, Daddy, and new Callie. She was five, but she already knew what it was to be invisible.
Once, before Callie was born, Jolene heard someone murmur child of sin as she and Momma walked down the street. Momma’s hand grew tight and cold in hers, but they did not stop. Why did that lady say that? Jolene asked, too young to be hurt, but old enough to be curious. But Momma would not answer. Is it ’cause my hair is red? Jolene asked again, but Momma still would not answer. Why come I don’t have blond hair like you and Daddy? Jolene asked, and Momma snapped, Good girls are seen and not heard, and pulled her hard along.
Everybody loved Callie. How could they not? Callie with her pink cheeks, her white skin, her golden curls. Callie who sang when the kettle sang, who jigged because it was Sunday, who etched faces onto mushrooms she found at the edge of the woods, who made masks of leaves and scrap paper for everyone to wear. When Momma took Callie and Jolene into town, people who used to ignore Momma would stop and bend down toward Callie. My, you’re such a pretty girl! they would say, and Callie would say, You too! and everyone would laugh, delighted. Jolene would laugh too, but too loudly, and Momma would shoot her a look that meant shush.
Momma no longer gets out of bed. She has Daddy buy callie lilies every week, and they fill the bedroom, white cones shriveling yellow, stalks browning with decay. When Jolene goes in to collect her mother’s dirty dishes, she holds her breath to avoid the stench of rotting flowers.
Daddy no longer looks at Jolene. He comes home late with bourbon on his breath and eats cold bread and cheese with her in silence. Sometimes Jolene can hear him in the room, begging Momma to wake up.
Jolene wanders the house like a ghost. Jolene imagines she can hear Callie playing.
It was a game. Who does Momma love best? Momma would crow, and little Callie would say, Callie! And Daddy would say, Who does Daddy love best? and Callie would say, Momma! One day Callie urged Jolene to ask, Who does Callie love best? and when Jolene did, Callie exclaimed, Jojo! Nobody ever asked who Jolene loved best.
Callie drew pictures in the dirt for Jolene to find, she wanted nobody but Jolene to put her to bed, she always saved a piece of her birthday chocolate for Jolene. She wanted to follow Jolene everywhere, would not let Jolene escape to the quietness of the woods without her. When Jolene told her to go away, Callie would say, in a bell-like voice, I’ll be so quiet, and pretend to be a bunny sniffing for lettuce. Callie wanted to hunt treasure beneath the canopies of trees. She had Jolene scratch Xs in between their gnarled roots and pretended something precious lay beneath them. She collected pinecones and acorns and ferns with spores still firmly attached to their backsides, and made a trail of them. When Momma called for Jolene to come back in to help with chores, Callie begged her to stay. Callie shouted, Momma, Jojo’s important! and Momma let Jolene play for another half hour.
Sometimes Jolene wished Callie would disappear into the well for a day, just so she could live in peace.
Jolene can’t stop herself from replaying the moment again and again. A small plop. Turning around and Callie gone. Callie gone. The second, a long, drawn-out second where Jolene thinks Callie must have vanished, must have disappeared into thin air, magical, angel, fairy—
Jolene plays it back again. The plop. Turning around. The windless trees. The silent sky. No birds, no fish. A pile of twigs and feathers. Nothing. Nobody.
Then the head, there, not there. Blond hair muddying brown. Blue eyes bugged and wide. Desperate, pleading. The stillness, the quiet. And Jolene, she—
Again. The small swallow. Turning around. The head, the eyes. The checking, the double-checking.
The impossible thought: My baby sister is in the water and she is drowning.
The eyes, the hair.
Jolene’s legs, do they twitch? Do they freeze? Do they even try to break free?
The mouth, the hands.
She has time to see all of these details because why?
She starts again. Again, the plop, again, the turn, again, again—
Jolene had not loved Callie on the day Callie broke Momma’s favorite teacup. Jolene had told her six was too small to wash dishes, Momma had warned Jolene not to let her, but Callie wanted to help. Callie wanted to do what Jolene was doing. And when the cup slipped and shattered, when Callie bled because she grabbed at a shard before Jolene could stop her, it was Jolene who was punished. Daddy whipped her six times with his belt: one lashing for the cup, two lashings for Callie’s bandaged hand, three lashings for not being a better sister.
Jolene escaped into the woods after, backside smarting. She climbed into the old dried-up well, down the rope she’d secured to the nearby maple, and sat on the dirt ground, sobbing into her knees. When she was out of tears, she scratched at the damp surface with a stick, and imagined Momma and Daddy, stomachs clenched with worry, calling for her. She waited until dusk, then climbed out and ran home.
Momma saw her dirty clothes and frowned. Aren’t you too old to be rolling in the mud like a little beast? Momma said and returned to stirring soup on the stove.
That night, Jolene discovered Callie’s most precious calico doll on Jolene’s pillow, a gift. Jolene hated Callie even more for being someone so unhateable.
Jolene kissed Callie’s purple lips again and again. She thought somewhere she’d read that this would save a drowned person. Like Snow White, like Sleeping Beauty, except they had not drowned, and Jolene wasn’t a prince. Callie was cold, her face puffy, her arms clenched and slimy. Jolene kissed her and kissed her and shook her and shook her, and then sat back, a bubble of dread and shame and horror welling up in her stomach. She tried to carry Callie, but her little body was surprisingly heavy. So Jolene carefully laid Callie on the bank amongst the reeds like she was putting her down for a nap, checked to make sure her sister looked comfortable, and ran home.
Daddy, breath stinking, finds Jolene in her room one night. He sprawls on the floor against the wall. Again, he says to Jolene, his eyes red-rimmed. Tell me again. And Jolene tells him. How after the big rain, Callie had wanted to go fishing. How Jolene was turned—her back was turned!—trying to hook a worm onto a sharpened twig, and hadn’t seen Callie slip and fall in. How she was too late to save her.
She suffered, Daddy says, and his lip trembles. The tremble scares Jolene.
She hit her head on a rock, Jolene lies. She didn’t feel anything.
Another evening. Jolene turns the corner into the sitting room, and there is Daddy in the near-dark, head drooping, a glass tipping precariously from his limp hand. Jolene begins to pry the glass gently from his fingers, but Daddy jerks back. His dark eyes land on Jolene, settle hard and long, before they turn vague again and snap shut. Jolene steps back. Now she is the one trembling. He knows, she thinks with horror.
They had intended to fish. The rain had finally stopped after three days and nights. Stir-crazy, Callie had run outside, not caring that her dress was getting dirty. She curled her toes and watched the mud ooze between them, delighted. Jojo, she said. All the bugs came out! Worms and snails had risen to the surface, littering the lawn, the roads, the yard. Wet, earthy, plump with rainwater. Callie plucked a worm from the ground, watched it squirm and curl between her forefinger and thumb, and declared they should go fishing. Jolene did not want to. Jolene had rather liked the days holed up inside, learning to knit alongside Momma. But Callie pouted, and Momma relented, giving them a handful of old twine and Daddy’s penknife to fashion hooks. Be careful with this, Momma warned Jolene. Do not let your sister play with it.
The lake was swollen. Mosquitoes buzzed on its surface, and everything was glassy and hot. Newly broken reeds dipped their heads into the water like they were thirsty. Jolene gathered twigs and sat down on a south-facing rock to sharpen them. She asked Callie to find the worms, to look for feathers to be tied onto the twine. Callie sang loudly: Four and twenty blackbirds!
Jolene told her to shut it. I’m concentrating. She hated fishing. Daddy took them fishing once, when Callie was four and Jolene was nine, and Callie, with baby hands helped by Daddy, caught a rainbow-colored fish, and Jolene caught nothing.
Jolene did not find worms disgusting, but she hated gutting them. She did not hook them correctly, and often they broke, becoming two pathetic writhing creatures.
Lemme see, Callie said, crouching next to her and peering at the mangled worm. Lemme help.
I told you, get feathers.
I can do it, Callie said.
You’ll only hook your fingers, and I’ll get in trouble for it.
So Callie disappeared, and Jolene concentrated on the worms and the hooks, listening to Callie sing under her breath, Mustn’t sing, mustn’t bother Jojo, as she moved back and forth along the lake bank behind her. Jolene had just gotten the second worm on the hook when she heard Callie squeal, A pretty red one! followed by a startled, small Oh! and that plop, and Jolene was turned around, staring at nothing.
Momma, Jolene whispers, but Momma is asleep. Her hand is thrown across her forehead. Jolene brushes back Momma’s blond curls, clumped with dirt and grease from not washing. Momma doesn’t stir. Momma, Jolene says again. I can make you a paper mask too. You can wear it every day. It’ll keep the sunlight out. It’ll keep everything out. I can make one for you.
Momma doesn’t move. Jolene sees little pricks of wetness at the corner of Momma’s eyes. Sleep tears or sad tears? Jolene wonders.
Jolene remembers life before Callie: Momma often sitting still on the porch, Daddy warning Jolene not to disturb her. Your mother suffered to bring you here, he said when Jolene whined for Momma’s attention. Do your best not to be a nuisance now. Daddy had been kind but stern. Daddy did not often hug her. Daddy hugged Momma on the nights Momma cried, inconsolable, her words garbled—dirty, damaged, tainted—and Jolene, playing quietly in the corner, knew the best girls were seen not heard.
They are going back to before, Jolene realizes, and suddenly she can’t stand it. She wants to scream, to break all the vases, to throw all the shriveled, molded lilies to the ground, to wake all of them up.
Momma, Jolene says, raising her voice as much as she dares. She gives Momma a little shove. Momma is like bread dough, heavy but airy. Her body moves but settles back again.
Momma, Jolene says, louder, pushing her harder. You still have me. Immediately, the selfishness of the words fills her mouth with cotton. She drops her arms and backs away from the bed. The stench of dead flowers is nauseating. I’m sorry, she whispers. She waits a few more seconds. Momma does not stir. When Jolene leaves, she closes the bedroom door behind her.
Jolene raced toward home, abandoning Callie, little cold Callie, to the reeds. Jolene felt sick before she could make it halfway. She vomited into the bushes and then kept running.
She found Momma, who stumbled toward the lake shrieking, Darling, darling!, tripping over her starched house skirt. Jolene turned and ran in the other direction, toward town, toward the general store where Daddy worked. Daddy looked startled when the door hit the wall, the bell violently clanging. Callie—the lake—Jolene choked out between breaths, and before she could finish, Daddy, too, was sprinting toward the lake.
Momma was crouched over Callie’s blue body, sobbing. Daddy fell to his knees. Jolene hugged herself. She could not stop shivering. Her skin was still damp. She was so cold. She stared at Momma’s skirt, at the dung-colored streaks flecked across the bottom. She thought to herself that Momma, who had always prided herself on her pressed clothes, clean nails, brushed hair, would have to throw that skirt away.
Later that night, after the doctor, the neighbors, the priest, after all the people she knew had always hated her had finally gone and left Momma and Daddy to mourn alone, Jolene crept out of the house. She crawled down into the well and sat there, images from the afternoon replaying in her head again and again. She kept going back to that moment. The moment when she turned and stared. Those few long seconds. Her good, sweet sister who had loved her.
Why hadn’t she jumped in immediately? Why had she done nothing?
Child of sin, Jolene whispered. She cried into her knees until dawn, when she finally dozed off.
The house was silent when she got back at midday. Callie’s body was gone. For a second, Jolene wondered if she’d dreamt it up, if maybe she would hear Momma and Daddy coming up the porch steps at any moment, Callie swinging between their arms. But then Daddy came out of the bedroom, his eyes bloodshot. He took two large strides across the floor toward Jolene and slapped her.
How could you miss your sister’s funeral? he asked, his jaw shaking.
Jolene held her cheek, the stinging warmth giving way to a hard pit of grief in her gut. She had missed it. She had missed her last chance to say goodbye, to say she was sorry.
We waited and waited and looked and looked, but then we couldn’t wait anymore. He stared at Jolene. She was my daughter, he said. She was your sister.
Jolene said nothing. Tears dribbled sticky down her neck.
Selfish. Did you think about anybody else when you disappeared? Isn’t it enough already, after all that your mother has gone through, without her worrying about you too?
Jolene wanted to say, I didn’t know anyone would be worried about me, but she couldn’t.
Daddy stared at her with a contempt that frightened her. Then he turned back into the bedroom, closing the door firmly shut.
Jolene stood in the middle of the house, her palm pressed against her face, and cried.
Tell me a story, Callie begged on the nights she couldn’t sleep.
Jolene, already sleepy, would tell her, Tomorrow.
Bedtime stories are for bedtime, Callie would say, or You’re the best storyteller. Please?
Jolene always gave in. She’d push aside her covers to make space for Callie, who would scurry into Jolene’s bed as if afraid she might change her mind. Then, with Callie’s warm little body pressed against her, Jolene would make up stories about princesses who ate too much cake and became balloons that floated to the moon, about magical lands where rivers flowed with lemonade and trees grew peppermint drops, about little bears that befriended owls, about little girls who fought purple mountain lions and won.
The one about the kites, Callie said on the third night they lay sleepless from the howling of the storm. The girl and the boy with the kites. Tell it.
Why don’t you just tell it? Jolene said, yawning. I never tell it right.
You tell it best, Callie said. She waited. Once upon a time there was a girl and a boy. Say it.
Jolene relented. Once upon a time there was a girl and a boy.
And they were friends.
And they were friends.
Tell the rest, Jojo, Callie said. She folded her palms under her cheek, just like the sketch of a little sleeping angel Momma had hung in the bathroom.
They did everything together. They hunted and fished and caught apples and shared all of the things they loved. Their favorite thing was to make kites out of sticks and newspapers, and paint them happy colors and fly them in the fields. They were inseparable.
And don’t forget, Callie cut in, the little girl loved birds. And she loved the woods. And she loved all of the nice things that make the world nice to live in.
What did the boy love?
Being with the girl.
Right. He loved being with the girl, and the two of them were happy.
Then one day, an evil sorcerer took the girl away, Callie said in a low, foreboding voice.
And imprisoned her in a castle.
No, it wasn’t a castle!
No, just a courtyard. With a high wall made of mirrors. So high that the little girl couldn’t see the birds and couldn’t see the woods and couldn’t see the river and could only see herself.
If she was in a tower, she could see all of those outside things.
Not if the tower didn’t have windows.
That’s not the story, Jojo!
Jolene sighed. Then why don’t you tell it, if you know it better?
No, Callie said, kicking her legs under the sheets. I want you to.
Okay, okay. So she was behind the wall, and she was very sad. But she believed the boy would find her. And he did. He came to the wall, the very high wall, and he put his mouth to it and shouted, Are you in there? And the girl was so happy when she heard his voice, she said, You found me!
But the girl was still so sad, because she was trapped and she couldn’t see anything or get out.
Are you going to let me tell the story?
So then the boy had an idea. He told the girl he would be back, and he went and gathered sticks and newspapers and then came back and made a kite. Except instead of painting it, he pounded at the wall with a rock until big pieces of the mirrors came off, and he stuck those mirrors onto the kite.
So that when it flew… You say it.
So that when it flew, it could reflect all the world so that the girl could see.
He thought he was doing a good thing, but it made the girl cry.
Yes… because the mirrors were all broken, so it made the world look funny and broken, and the girl thought the sorcerer had ruined the woods and made everything terrible.
When the little boy heard the little girl cry, he felt sad.
He felt like he had done the wrong thing, he’d made the girl feel worse. So what did he do?
He flew on the tail of the kite and went into the courtyard.
And he dropped into the courtyard and was with her. And he hugged her and said, Don’t cry, I’m here now. And the little girl was happy. Because even though she was trapped in the courtyard, she was trapped with her best friend. So she didn’t need the woods or the birds or anything. She had him, and that was enough.
And then one day, Jolene wakes to the smell of oil frying and heads to the kitchen. Momma, her apron on, flips griddle cakes in a pan. Her eyes look tired, her face pale, but she has washed her hair, and it is curled in the neat knot Jolene was once used to seeing every day.
Hungry? Momma asks, and Jolene nods, afraid to speak. Momma puts a plate of scrambled eggs on the table. Cakes done in a minute, she says.
Will Daddy be joining us? Jolene says carefully.
Yes, Daddy says, coming into the room and giving Momma a kiss on the cheek. Breakfast with my girls before I start my day.
Jolene tries to squash the warm pleasure that spreads through her body.
Daddy sits across from Jolene. He’s shaved, his hair is neatly oiled and combed. He smiles at her, and sticks a fork into the eggs. First day of school, right?
Next week, Jolene answers. She’s been dreading school, dreads facing her classmates, the pitying looks they’ll give her.
Can you bring a bolt of that navy cloth with the small pink flowers back from the store? Momma calls to Daddy. And maybe the gray, too. Jolene will need some new school clothes.
Daddy smiles at Jolene. Does seem like you’ve grown suddenly. Sprouted like a bean. A little lady, soon.
Jolene blushes and hides her smile into her chin.
Momma lays a plate of griddle cakes in front of Jolene. The edges are crisp, the surface bubbling. A strange, pock-marked face, whimsical in its burnt frown.
Look, Jolene exclaims, giggling, wanting to show Callie, but then she remembers. Laughter chokes in Jolene’s throat. Her palm flies to her mouth.
Daddy stares at her. Momma’s smile freezes on her face.
A familiar mix of guilt and dread seeps thickly throughout Jolene’s body. She looks at Momma, sees how the smile doesn’t reach up to her eyes, how her face looks hollow and glassy. She looks at Daddy and realizes that she can still smell traces of something sour and sharp emanating from his skin.
Jolene? Daddy asks. Is something wrong?
In a different world, on a different morning, Jolene sits with Callie, who giggles uncontrollably at the funny cake-face Jolene has pointed out. Callie tells Daddy and Momma about the story Jolene told her the night before. Jojo never gets it right, Callie says, and Jolene is almost irritated, but in that moment, Callie threads her chubby fingers into Jolene’s. In that moment, Jolene feels a surge of love for her sister. In that moment, Jolene could never, ever imagine herself being anything but her protector.
It is not that morning, though, it is this morning, the only morning.
And there are too many things Jolene doesn’t know how to confess.
Momma and Daddy stare at Jolene, and for a second she imagines a twitch, Momma’s fingers fluttering, Daddy’s arm shifting. She wonders if she just tells them—Callie is dead and I’m afraid I killed her—if maybe, perhaps, there’s a chance that they might take her palms into theirs, press them warm into their laps, and tell her, It wasn’t your fault, it was an accident, you loved your sister.
Jolene presses her fork into the griddle cake, slicing across its pimpled cheek, and stabs into the piece. She opens her mouth.
But Jolene could never get endings right. On that last stormy evening, curled warmly in Jolene’s bed, she got the story wrong again. Boy and girl trapped together forever. Jolene thought that was a good ending, a happy ending. But Callie insisted, That’s not how it goes!
He goes in with the kite and rescues her. She grabs onto his feet, and they fly out of the courtyard and escape together out to the world, where they can live happily ever after.
You don’t remember it right.
That’s why I told you to tell it.
Stories are supposed to have happy endings.
Being with the friend you love—isn’t that the happiest thing?
Jolene yawned. It’s time to sleep now, she said.
Okay, Callie said, also yawning. She turned and curled into Jolene’s chest. Her hair tickled at Jolene’s chin, its powdery scent lingering under Jolene’s nostrils. What’ll we do tomorrow, Jojo? she asked, but even as Jolene began to answer, Callie’s breathing grew steady and quiet.
Jolene kissed her sister’s forehead and pulled her close. She listened to the wind, to the battering of the storm against the windows, until she too fell asleep.