My sister is the one who bleeds first. “Stigmata” our mother calls it, but there are other languages, other tongues ancient and cold as the stars, that would call it something else. She wraps my sister in cotton and lace and places thin slivers of ice on her tongue and coos in a voice I don’t understand.
It’s understandable that I would press my hand over my sister’s mouth and nose while she’s sleeping. She was not supposed to be the first. Of course, once she starts to twitch, I grow fearful and steal back to my own bed, the choking sounds she makes sinking in my belly like a handful of stones.
The old women file in and out of our house in straight lines, dark veils pulled over their faces, and they stare down at my sister and smile and nod at one another. “Lovely. Just lovely,” they say, and my sister only stares up at the ceiling, the crimson staining her lashes.
“When will it happen to me?” I ask my mother. She shushes me and smooths my hair from my face, but she doesn’t answer.
At night, I imagine deaths for myself and listen to my sister bleed. “It wasn’t supposed to be you. Not yet,” I say, but her tongue is frozen behind her teeth, and my sister does not respond.
I learn to keep to myself, to make myself quiet. I learn to watch the sky. Perhaps, if I tuck all of the aching parts of myself away, the bleeding will realize its mistake. This is not my sister’s omen. It is mine.
“She was so tiny. When she was born. Silent. The doctor thought she had died.” My mother turns a cup of tea in her hands. Her eyes are pink and watery, and she does not blink. In our bedroom, my sister is silent as she was when she was born. “I wonder now if she was ever alive at all.”
“Are they coming back? The women?” I ask, and my mother glances over her shoulder as if the women are already there with their weak smiles and too-sharp eyes.
“Of course they are. Why wouldn’t they?” She stands and dumps her tea into the kitchen sink, and I watch as her body curves into something I don’t recognize; something that belongs in the darker parts of a fairy tale. “Of course they are.”
I ask no more questions and go to stand over my sister, my fingers just under her face so that those shimmering droplets pearl against my fingers. Her eyes remain trained on the ceiling, and I wonder if in the place she’s gone, she’s offering up something like a prayer.
Only I know it isn’t a prayer at all. It’s something else altogether.
“You’re not supposed to know. Not yet.” I whisper in her ear and gather her long, dark hair in my fist. “Not yet.”
The next morning, the women come. This time my mother closes the door behind them and walks out of the house and into the woods. I cannot bring myself to move from my place on the couch, cannot bring myself to go and fling open the door the way I want to.
“Where did you go?” I ask my mother when she returns. Outside, the sky has turned dark, and the wind has picked up and the trees scratch and knock at the windows like things that have lost their way.
Her hands shake, and she looks away, and I ask no more questions. My sister keeps her vigil in the other room, the hours and minutes unspooling around her. Around us.
The next day, the women come again, and again my mother vanishes into the trees. This time, I creep next to the door and press my ear to the wood, but I hear only the whooshing of my own heart, and the sound of the old women’s feet as they gather around my sister. Once, I think I hear one of them say something like “holy,” but I convince myself I’ve imagined it. Outside of our door, I pinch myself until I bruise to keep the jealousy from turning me inside out.
“Where does Mother go?” I ask my sister when the women are gone and my mother is supposed to be sleeping. “What do the women do?” If my sister has any secrets, she’s locked them away, and the blood falls warm and lovely over my hands. I do not wash the blood away until my fingers have gone cold and sticky, and even then, I wait until I can no longer stand the feeling of my sister’s stain on my skin.
“It’s not supposed to happen this way,” I say outside of my mother’s door. Only the silence of the house answers me, and I wonder if my mother has entered into a form of her own death. A waking end that’s left her hollowed out. I think I understand something about the way that might feel.
The next morning my mother dresses my sister in a dress the color of flowers and spring and damp air, and she does not speak to me as the women file past her and into our bedroom. I watch my mother’s vanishing back and press my fingernails into my palm until they leave small, half-moon indentations, but no matter how hard I push, there is no blood.
I do not close the door all the way behind me when I leave our room. The latch does not catch, and I hover just outside and force my heart to be still.
My mother is long gone when I drift back to the door. My mother is long gone when I find that small crack I left and look through.
The old women bend over my sister, their mouths gone scarlet and their teeth long and white, as they draw their tongues over her hands, her cheeks. They have peeled off her dress, and they lap at the smooth bowl of her stomach. In many voices, they murmur and whisper, and I feel everything inside of me grow cold.
They have turned my sister’s face so I can see her eyes, and it is something like death to see her staring past me without recognition. I steal away. I cry salt tears instead of blood, and the old women leave our room. They press cool hands to my cheeks and it takes every bit of strength to not rake my teeth over their wrinkled flesh and scream until there is nothing left of my voice. Perhaps the sound would wake my sister, but I know that it won’t.
These are the horrors we longed for. These are the dreams we had as girls, our bodies curled against each other as we whispered into the dark, and our mother lay in the next room, her eyes open as she waited for what she knew would come.
When my mother comes out of the forest, I do not rise to greet her, and she does not come into our bedroom to see me lying next to my sister, her blood covering my arms, my hair. “It’s okay,” I whisper to my sister, and I gather her hand in my own and match my breathing to hers and sink down and down into all of the stillness at the bottom of the world.
In the morning, our mother steals into our room. I think that she will cry to see us, her two girls wound together, their blood seeping back into the earth, but she does not. Instead, she lifts our arms, our legs, and dresses us in white, and combs our hair with the silver comb she received from her own mother, and presses her lips to our foreheads.
She was a girl once, too. One day, she’ll be an old woman. She understands.
The old women come each morning, their heads dipping to taste the brightness we offer. I wonder what it is they hope to find. My mother, my sister, they do not speak, and in this frozen place I’ve come to know, my tongue and lips remain still, so I cannot ask questions. I wonder if in her own slumber, my sister has the same questions.
I do not become a woman. I only bleed.
The sun bleaches out the room where my sister and I lay, and my mother learns how to move more slowly, her bones grown tired and aching under the weight of her daughters.
The old women still come, and their faces are the same, and the weight of their tongues and teeth are the same. I wonder if my mother still loses herself in the trees while they hover over us. I wonder if I’ll ever have a daughter and let myself wander into all of that dense green to forget the wet sounds of another group of old women bent over her still, girlish body.
I’d hoped to understand when the bleeding finally came to me. Hoped some voice would whisper to me in the dark, all of the secrets locked away spilled over my hands, my lips, but so far there has been only silence. I wonder if whatever dark gods that bring this bleeding chose my sister instead. Chose to reveal all of that beauty to her since she was the first.
I try to twitch my fingers. Try to drag my fingernails across my sister’s skin, but I am only a vessel. I am not supposed to understand anything other than this stillness that has come to live in our skins.
My mother’s hair loses its color, and her back grows stooped, but still, she changes our dresses. Sometimes, she presses her lips to our foreheads, and once I imagine I see wetness on her face, but then she is gone.
If she mourns for us, it’s a buried thing we’ll never see.
The sun rises and sets, but its fire does not worm its way into my skin, my blood.
Our mother stops coming to our room, but the old women do not, and I understand that our mother is dead. The old women still shuffle before us with their whispered words I have never grown to understand. I like to imagine it’s some form of magic. That someday this world will crack under the heaviness their language has woven. That maybe it will bring us back to life.
My sister is the first to awaken. I can hear her gasping, her muscles twitching like some small, panicked animal, and then she tumbles away from me, and I hate her a little more.
Our mother is dead. I long to speak to my sister. Long to grasp her by the shoulders and shake her until her neck snaps, or to sink my teeth into the soft skin along her spine, but I am still a dead, bleeding thing, and all I can do is watch as she rises over me, all fresh skin and blinking eyes.
My sister opens her mouth. I think she will speak. Instead, she screams.
I do not see my sister again, but there are nights when I hear her. Hear her sobbing from somewhere far away. I imagine her waiting under the trees, her fingers twined through our mother’s.
Weeks pass and the old women do not come. My dress lies heavy over my abdomen, my thighs. My cheeks and fingers feel stretched tight. There is no one to lick the blood away. No one to change my dress. No one to lie silently beside me in the dark.
I stop noticing how the day leaks into night. I listen. I wait.
When my sister returns it is without warning. I am alone, and then I am not.
“Wake up,” she whispers into my ear.
I offer her a tear of blood.
“Wake up, sister. It’s silly to stay asleep like this. There’s nothing to understand. It never mattered. Never,” she says.
They picked you instead. I should be angry, but the fire of it has fallen away from me, and I am more tired than I have ever been.
“The old women are gone. I taught them something of the world before I rid us of their hungry mouths.” She laughs, and the sound is harsh. “Sister, wake up.”
Outside, I wonder if the world has drowned in green. If there is nothing left but the forest my mother hid herself in. If my sister has found something lovely here at the end.
“Come,” my sister says.
My fingers twitch.
Originally published in Great Jones Street, 23 October 2017.