Imagine a night when the space between words becomes like the space between trees: wide enough to wander in.
– Sarah Thomson.
“That poor girl,” they’d say. “Imagine that happening right in our neighborhood.”
“Do you think she suffered much? It’s too dreadful to think about.”
“We’re all holding a vigil in her honor. You’ll be there, of course?”
No, I won’t be there. I honestly don’t understand why people still feel sorry for my sister Catherine. Once pain has passed, it no longer exists. Once life has passed, pain is no longer possible. Her cold body no longer bleeds, nor do her withered lungs cry out as they must have done from the lonely depths of those tangled woods. Sympathy is wasted on the dead.
All my life I’ve been the one who was pitied. I was diagnosed at four with spinal muscle atrophy which wasted me away until I was too weak to stand. I underwent constant orthopedic surgeries, physio-therapy, respiratory care, and endless new medications. Never once did I think I would be the one to survive. My older sister had always been there to take care of me though. From helping me shower to pushing my wheelchair, she’d supported me literally and figuratively for as long as I can remember.
Now they treat her like she’s the victim, but she isn’t anymore. I don’t care if you think this selfish, but mother and I are the only victims now. We’re the ones living amidst the ashes of a life which burned so bright and brief: a defiant flare from a dying star. Only our unmeasured pain still lingers in her absence.
“She’s in Heaven now,” my mother told me. “It’s the most wonderful place you can imagine.”
“Then why are you still sad?” I’d asked.
“Because she got there first, and we must wait.” Mother held me close, although I think it was as much for her own comfort as mine. She didn’t want me to see, but I could still feel the suppressed trembling of her body and knew she must be crying. At 14, I was too old to be comforted by her façade. Catherine helped me so much while mom was at work, but now that we’re alone, I don’t know what we’ll do. There’s a constant source of restless anticipation as though any second could bring her through the door or break the grim silence with her swelling laughter. It still doesn’t seem real that she’s gone.
Catherine used to sit and read upon that window seat, now cluttered with the graveyard of her possessions. Or out in the garden, dancing among her sprouting seeds with a triumphant exaltation unmatched by the inauguration of an emperor. She walked in grace, warming each room she entered with boundless vitality. Even now in the heat of summer I shiver to remember what that felt like.
I still talk to her sometimes, but not in the way you might expect. I don’t ask her about the night she died, or dwell upon evil thoughts of the creature which devoured everything except her eyes. Instead, I’ll break the hungry silence of the night by asking how she lived with such innocent wonder. I’ll ask how she was so happy, because sitting alone in the room we shared, it seems that I’ve forgotten.
“You’re such a strong girl,” they say. “Your sister would be proud.”
“It will get easier. Time heals all wounds.”
No, I don’t believe that either. Time makes a wound fester and rot, magnifying the pain into brooding despair. If Catherine had somehow crawled from the clutches of the wilds, legs torn to shreds, face mutilated beyond recognition, do you think time would have spared her from pain? Or would life’s cruelty compound her injury until isolation and rejection stole what remaining dignity even the beast could not take? Will time ever spare me from the prison of this failing body?
They see me eating, and talking, and forcing a smile through my dried lips. They don’t realize that two girls died the night Catherine was attacked. They know that we were close, but do not understand that we were the same. One secret glance between us, and we would see into each other’s heart. Half a smile, and we both laughed at an unshared joke. Even now through the veil of death I can see her waiting for me on the other side.
My body lingered for a week after her death, but there was no point in delaying the inevitable. I was calm when I rolled up to the pool last night. The chill waters ebbed and flowed against my feet like an electrical current, but it couldn’t disturb the tranquility which ushered my spirit toward her. Catherine was in Heaven now, so what was the point of waiting here in Hell?
It would be only human nature to struggle once I rolled into the pool. The chair would pin me beneath the suffocating water though, and even without it I wouldn’t be strong enough to swim. Catherine would have struggled too, but that’s over now. When the fluid filled my lungs and my oxygen deprived brain stopped thinking about the world that might have been, we’d be together again.
One deep breath before the plunge.
If only I had died and she had lived. Mother could have been happy then.
One look back at the dark house.
But not dark enough. I could see mom now, watching me from her bedroom window.
She wasn’t calling out. She didn’t want to stop me. It didn’t matter either way though.
One way or the other, I was already gone.
I plunged my chair into the water and sank toward the bottom. The peace didn’t last, but I waited as long as I could before letting the first bubbles escape my mouth. The pressure built into a silent scream. My fingers dug into my neck, but I forced myself to let go. The last wave of air leaked from my burning lungs and my head spun. I thought I caught a glimpse of mother looking down at me, but my eyes swelled shut and I couldn’t be sure. The water poured into my nose and mouth, filling my chest, flowing and growing and swelling until I knew I would burst.
It’s okay. I told myself. This isn’t the end. This is just a stopping point on between being alone and together again.
The water was rushing past me now. I sensed a light penetrating into my closed lids. I felt a surge of upward motion. I tried to open my eyes, but the light was so bright that I couldn’t see any more than with them shut. My chair was gone. This was it. The wait was over, and I was being carried to Heaven.
My head burst free from the water and I spluttered in the open air. My eyes were still pressed tight, but I flailed until I felt something solid and gripped on for dear… life? Dear existence, perhaps. The water gently pushed me toward the shore, and I pulled myself hand over trembling hand until solid ground welcomed me.
I vomited a veritable river of water. It felt like I must have drunk half the pool. I couldn’t still be there though, because instead of the tiles I felt grass and mud squelching beneath me.
The rustle of leaves. The strangled caw of a bird, and then a hooting reply. I wiped my face with dirty hands until a sliver of light broke through my swollen lids. The tangled trees rose around me like specters of the night, and a full moon illuminated the stagnant pool which I’d crawled from. Perhaps I was in the woods behind my house, but I had never seen them by moonlight. Was I dead?
What had my sister been doing, so far out alone? She never went anywhere without me. How did she even get there?
The crack of a branch. More rustling, prompting a surge of wild panic from my already erratic heart. And what was it that had attacked her that night?
Everyone had assumed that she had simply snuck off into the woods with a boy. Wouldn’t she have told me though? I had been so obsessed with my own thoughts and feelings that I hadn’t even stopped to wonder what really happened that night. It had just been an accident, too horrible to think about. Or was it?
I took a hesitant step back toward the pool of water, but looking down I could see that it couldn’t be more than a few inches deep. It was impossible for me to be here, but I was.
I took another step, my feet scrambling below me. For the first time in my life I was walking, but it wasn’t just that. I was walking on all fours. They weren’t hands which had pulled me out of the water, but predatory paws like some primordial wolf from an age where tooth and claw were the only rules governing the world.
The rustling was getting closer.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Catherine! It had to be her! We could be together again, but not like this. Not with the fur bristling down my back or claws churning the wet mud. I felt my mouth involuntarily twist into a snarl. Run Catherine! You aren’t safe with me! If only she could sense my thoughts now like she used to. Tension washed through my body as I crouched to pounce, and savage instincts flooded my awareness with an undeniable compulsion to feed.
But it wasn’t Catherine. It was my mother who stepped through the trees to stand before me. I was so surprised that I couldn’t even move. She was wearing a bathrobe I had seen her in when she watched me from her bedroom window and smiling from ear to ear.
“There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she said. “Come along, your sister is waiting.”
She took a step toward me, but the vibration of an alien growl rose in my throat.
“Don’t be silly.” Mother didn’t seem the least afraid, and her confidence in the face of my terrifying presence was enough to give me pause. “You’re in Heaven now, child. You needn’t be afraid. For our family, that means returning to who we truly are. The body may be tamed, but the spirit can never be deprived of its true form. Your father has decided your sister was old enough to become herself, although you have decided for yourself.”
This wasn’t my Heaven. This wasn’t who I was. This wasn’t who Catherine – poor innocent Catherine – was meant to be. The feral rage was building inside me again, but I couldn’t let myself attack. What would that accomplish, besides allowing mother to transform as well?
“That’s right, you understand now.” Mother took a step forward. She loosened her robe, exposing her bare neck. “Go ahead. Do it, and we will be a family again.”
The flesh was so soft, and I was so hungry. It was so easy to sink my teeth in and shake the life out of her. The freedom of my body was exhilarating as I flew through the air. I wasn’t a cripple anymore. I wasn’t in pain, or pitied, or a victim. I wasn’t alone anymore. In that moment as the blood ran down my jaws, I knew my mother was right. I was in Heaven.
But how quickly that moment passed, and how silent the woods when her body stopped moving. By the morning I woke alone in the woods, covered in my mother’s blood. My hands were my own. My feet were my own. And how my body shook as I pulled myself inch by excruciating inch across the forest floor with my degenerative muscles fighting me the whole way.
It’s taken time, but I’ve pieced together what I think really happened to me. The first time I died, it was when I suffocated in my sleep when my failing lungs could no longer support my dying body. That was the night of my first transformation, when I killed my sister and dragged her into the woods.
The second night I died was in the pool, prompting my second rebirth. But just like the first time, it only lasted through the night. I don’t know who my father is or where these powers came from, but it seems as though my mother didn’t understand as I do now. My mother and sister did not have the gift, and neither of them are coming back. Every night since then, I flee my dying body and relish in the freedom of the hunt. Every night I die, and every night I taste Heaven again.