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Cruel Sistah

Cruel Sistah

“You and Neville goin out again?”

“I think so. He asked could he call me Thursday after class.”

Calliope looked down at her sister’s long, straight, silky hair. It fanned out over Calliope’s knees and fell almost to the floor, a black river drying up just short of its destined end. “Why don’t you let me wash this for you?”

“It takes too long to dry. Just braid it up like you said, okay?”

“Your head all fulla dandruff,” Calliope lied. “And ain’t you ever heard of a hair dryer? Mary Lockett lent me her portable.”

“Mama says those things bad for your hair.” Dory shifted uncomfortably on the sofa cushion laid on the hardwood floor where she sat. Dory (short for Dorcas) was the darker-skinned of the two girls, darker by far than their mama or their daddy. “Some kinda throwback,” the aunts called her.

Mama doted on Dory’s hair, though, acting sometimes as if it was her own. Not too surprising, seeing how good it was. Also, a nervous breakdown eight years back had made Mama completely bald. Alopecia was the doctor’s word for it, and there was no cure. So Mama made sure both her daughters took care of their crowning glories. But especially Dory.

“All right, no dryer,” Calliope conceded. “We can go out in the back garden and let the sun help dry it. ’Cause in fact, I was gonna rinse it with rainwater. Save us haulin it inside.”

Daddy had installed a flexible hose on the kitchen sink. Calliope wet her sister’s hair down with warm jets of water, then massaged in sweet-smelling shampoo. White suds covered the gleaming black masses, gathering out of nowhere like clouds.

Dory stretched her neck and sighed. “That feels nice.”

“Nice as when Neville kisses you back there?”

“Ow!”

“Or over here?”

“OW! Callie, what you doin?”

“Sorry. My fingers slipped. Need to trim my nails, hunh? Let’s go rinse off.”

Blood from the cuts on her neck and ear streaked the shampoo clouds with pink stains. Unaware of this, Dory let her sister lead her across the red and white linoleum to the back porch and the creaky wooden steps down to the garden. She sat on the curved cement bench by the cistern, gingerly at first. It was surprisingly warm for spring. The sun shone, standing well clear of the box elders crowding against the retaining wall at the back of the lot. A silver jet flew high overhead, bound for Sea-Tac. The low grumble of its engines lagged behind it, obscuring Calliope’s words.

“What?”

“I said ‘Quit sittin pretty and help me move this lid.’”

The cistern’s cover came off with a hollow, grating sound. A slice of water, a crescent like the waning moon, reflected the sun’s brightness. Ripples of light ran up the damp stone walls. Most of the water lay in darkness, though. Cold smells seeped up from it: mud, moss. Mystery.

As children, Dory, Calliope and their cousins had been fascinated by the cistern. Daddy and Mama had forbidden them to play there, of course, which only increased their interest. When their parents opened it to haul up water for the garden, the girls hovered close by, snatching glimpses inside.

“Goddam if that no good Byron ain’t lost the bucket!” Calliope cursed the empty end of the rope she’d retrieved from her side of the cistern. It was still curled where it had been tied to the handle of the beige plastic bucket.

Byron, their fourteen year old cousin, liked to soak sticks and strips of wood in water to use in his craft projects. He only lived a block away, so he was always in and out of the basement workshop. “You think he took it home again?” Dory asked.

“No, I remember now I saw it downstairs, fulla some trash a his, tree branches or somethin.”

“Yeah? Well, that’s all right, we don’t wanna—”

“I’ll go get it and wipe it out good. Wait for me behind the garage.”

“Oh, but he’s always so upset when you mess with his stuff!”

“It ain’t his anyhow, is it?” Calliope took the porch steps two at a time. She was a heavy girl, but light on her feet. Never grew out of her baby fat. Still, she could hold her own in a fight.

The basement stairs, narrow and uneven, slowed her down a bit. Daddy had run a string from the bare-bulb fixture at their bottom, looping it along the wooden wall of the stairwell. She pulled, and the chain at its other end slithered obediently against porcelain, clicked and snapped back. Brightness flooded the lowering floor joists.

Calliope ignored the beige bucket full of soaking willow wands. Daddy’s tool bench, that’s where she’d find what she wanted. Nothing too heavy, though. She had to be able to lift it. And not too sharp. She didn’t want to have to clean up a whole lot of blood.

Hammer? Pipe wrench? What if Mama got home early and found Calliope carrying one of those out of the house? What would she think?

It came to her with the same sort of slide and snap that had turned the light on. Daddy was about to tear out the railroad ties in the retaining wall. They were rotten; they needed replacing. It was this week’s project. The new ones were piled up at the end of the driveway.

Smiling, Calliope selected a medium-sized mallet, its handle as long as her forearm. And added a crowbar for show.

Outside, Dory wondered what was taking her sister so long. A clump of shampoo slipped down her forehead and along one eyebrow. She wiped it off, annoyed. She stood up from the weeds where she’d been waiting, then quickly knelt down again at the sound of footsteps on the paving bricks.

“Bend forward.” Calliope’s voice cracked. Dory began twisting her head to see why. The mallet came down hard on her right temple. It left a black dent in the suds, a hollow. She made a mewing sound, fell forward. Eyes open, but blind. Another blow, well-centered, this time, drove her face into the soft soil. One more. Then Calliope took control of herself.

“You dead,” she murmured, satisfied.

A towel over her sister’s head disguised the damage. Hoisting her up into a sitting position and leaning her against the garage, Calliope hunkered back to look at her and think. No one was due home within the next couple of hours. For that long, her secret would be safe. Even then she’d be all right as long as they didn’t look out the kitchen windows. The retaining wall was visible from there, but if she had one of the new ties tamped in place, and the dirt filled back in . . .

A moment more she pondered. Fast-moving clouds flickered across the sun, and her skin bumped up. There was no real reason to hang back. Waiting wouldn’t change what she’d done.

The first tie came down easily. Giant splinters sprung off as Calliope kicked it to one side. The second one, she had to dig the ends out, and the third was cemented in place its full length by dried clay. Ants boiled out of the hundreds of holes that had been hidden behind it, and the phone rang.

She wasn’t going to answer it. But it stopped, and started again, and she knew she’d better.

Sweat had made mud of the dirt on her hands. She cradled the pale blue princess phone against one shoulder, trying to rub the mess clean on her shirt as she listened to Mama asking what was in the refrigerator. The cord barely stretched that far. Were they out of eggs? Butter? Lunch meat? Did Calliope think there was enough cornmeal to make hush puppies? Even with Byron coming over? And what were she and Dory up to that it took them so long to answer the phone?

“Dory ain’t come home yet. No, I don’t know why; she ain’t tole me. I was out in back, tearin down the retaining wall.”

Her mother’s disapproving silence lasted two full seconds. “Why you always wanna act so mannish, Calliope?”

There wasn’t any answer to that. She promised to change her clothes for supper.

Outside again, ants crawled on her dead sister’s skin.

Dory didn’t feel them. She saw them, though, from far off. Far up? What was going on didn’t make regular sense. Why couldn’t she hear the shovel digging? Whoever was lying there on the ground in Dory’s culottes with a towel over her head, it was someone else. Not her.

She headed for the house. She should be hungry. It must be supper time by now. The kitchen windows were suddenly shining through the dusk. And sure enough, Calliope was inside already, cooking.

In the downstairs bathroom, Daddy washed his hands with his sleeves rolled up. She kissed him. She did; on his cheek, she couldn’t have missed it.

The food look good, good enough to eat. Fried chicken, the crisp ridges and golden valleys of its skin glowing under the ceiling light. Why didn’t she want it? Her plate was empty.

Nobody talked much. Nobody talked to her at all. There were a lot of leftovers. Cousin Byron helped Calliope clear the table. Daddy made phone calls, with Mama listening in on the extension. She could see them both at the same time, in the kitchen and in their bedroom upstairs. She couldn’t hear anything.

Then the moon came out. It was bedtime, a school night. Everyone stayed up though, and the police sat in the living room and moved their mouths till she got tired of watching them. She went in the backyard again, where all this weird stuff had started happening.

The lid was still off the cistern. She looked down inside. The moon’s reflection shone up at her, a full circle, uninterrupted by shadow. Not smooth, though. Waves ran through it, long, like swirls actually. Closer, she saw them clearly: hairs. Her hairs, supple and fine.

Suddenly, the world was in daylight again. Instead of the moon’s circle, a face covered the water’s surface. Her sister’s face. Calliope’s. Different, and at first Dory couldn’t understand why. Then she realized it was her hair, her hair, Dory’s own. A thin fringe of it hung around her big sister’s face as if it belonged there. But it didn’t. Several loose strands fell drifting towards Dory. And again, it was night.

And day. And night. Time didn’t stay still. Mostly, it seemed to move in one direction. Mama kept crying; Daddy too. Dory decided she must be dead. But what about heaven? What about the funeral?

Byron moved into Dory’s old room. It wasn’t spooky; it was better than his mom’s house. There, he could never tell who was going to show up for drinks. Or breakfast. He never knew who was going to start yelling and throwing things in the middle of the night: his mom, or some man she had invited over, or someone else she hadn’t.

Even before he brought his clothes, Byron had kept his instruments and other projects here. Uncle Marv’s workshop was wonderful, and he let him use all his tools.

His thing now was gimbris, elegant North African ancestors of the cigar-box banjos he’d built two years ago when he was just beginning, just a kid. He sat on the retaining wall in the last, lingering light of the autumn afternoon, considering the face, neck, and frame of his latest effort, a variant like a violin, meant to be bowed. He’d pieced it together from the thin trunk of an elder tree blown down in an August storm, sister to the leafless ones still upright behind him.

The basic structure looked good, but it was kind of plain. It needed some sort of decoration. An inlay, ivory or mother of pearl or something. The hide backing was important, obviously, but that could wait; it’d be easier to take care of the inlay first.

Of course, real ivory would be too expensive. Herb David, who let him work in his guitar shop, said people used bone as a substitute. And he knew where some was. Small bits, probably from some dead dog or rabbit. They’d been entangled in the tree roots. He planned to make tuning pegs out of them. There’d be plenty, though.

He stood up, and the world whited out. It had been doing that a lot since he moved here. The school nurse said he had low blood pressure. He just had to stand still a minute and he’d be okay. The singing in his ears, that would stop, too. But it was still going when he got to the stairs.

Stubbornly, he climbed, hanging onto the handrail. Dory’s—his—bedroom was at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. His mom kept her dope in an orange juice can hung under the heat vent. He used the same system for his bones. No one knew he had them; so why was he afraid they’d take them away?

He held them in his cupped palms. They were warm, and light. The shimmering whiteness had condensed down to one corner of his vision. Sometimes that meant he was going to get a headache. He hoped not. He wanted to work on this now, while he was alone.

When he left his room, though, he crossed the hall into Calliope’s instead of heading downstairs to Uncle Marv’s workshop. Without knowing why, he gazed around him. The walls were turquoise, the throw rugs and bedspread pale pink. Nothing in here interested him, except—that poster of Wilt Chamberlain her new boyfriend, Neville, had given her . . .

It was signed, worth maybe one hundred dollars. He stepped closer. He could never get Calliope to let him anywhere near the thing when she was around, but she took terrible care of it. It was taped to the wall all crooked, sort of sagging in the middle.

He touched the slick surface—slick, but not smooth—something soft and lumpy lay between the poster and the wall. What? White light pulsed up around the edges of his vision as he lifted one creased corner.

Something black slithered to the floor. He knelt. With the whiteness, his vision had narrowed, but he could still see it was nothing alive. He picked it up.

A wig! Or at least part of one. Byron tried to laugh. It was funny, wasn’t it? Calliope wearing a wig like some old bald lady? Only . . . only it was so weird. The bones. This—hair. The way Dory had disappeared.

He had to think. This was not the place. He smoothed down the poster’s tape, taking the wig with him to the basement.

He put the smallest bone in a clamp. It was about as big around as his middle finger. He sawed it into oblong disks.

The wig hair was long and straight. Like Dory’s. It was held together by shriveled-up skin, the way he imagined an Indian’s scalp would be.

What if Calliope had killed her little sister? It was crazy, but what if she had? Did that mean she’d kill him if he told on her? Or if she thought he knew?

And if he was wrong, he’d be causing trouble for her, and Uncle Marv, and Aunt Cookie, and he might have to go live at home again.

Gradually, his work absorbed him, as it always did. When Calliope came in, he had a pile of bone disks on the bench, ready for polishing. Beside them, in a sultry heap, lay the wig, which he’d forgotten to put back.

Byron looked up at his cousin, unable to say anything. The musty basement was suddenly too small. She was three years older than him, and at least 30 pounds heavier. And she saw it, she had to see it. After a moment, he managed a sickly smirk, but his mouth stayed shut.

“Whatchoodoon?” She didn’t smile back. “You been in my room?”

“I—I didn’t—”

She picked it up. “Pretty, ain’t it?” She stroked the straight hair, smoothing it out. “You want it?”

No clue in Calliope’s bland expression as to what she meant. He tried to formulate an answer just to her words, to what she’d actually said. Did he want the wig? “For the bow I’m makin, yeah, sure, thanks.”

“Awright then.”

He wished she’d go away. “Neville be here tonight?”

She beamed. It was the right question to ask. “I guess. Don’t know what he sees in me, but the boy can’t keep away.”

Byron didn’t know what Neville saw in her either. “Neville’s smart,” he said diplomatically. It was true.

So was he.

There was more hair than he needed, even if he saved a bunch for restringing. He coiled it up and left it in his juice can. There was no way he could prove it was Dory’s. If he dug up the backyard where the tree fell, where he found the bones, would the rest of the skeleton be there?

The police. He should call the police, but he’d seen Dragnet, and Perry Mason. When he accepted the wig, the hair, he’d become an accessory after the fact. Maybe he was one even before that, because of the bones.

It was odd, but really the only time he wasn’t worried about all this was when he worked on the gimbri. By Thanksgiving, it was ready to play.

He brought it out to show to Neville after dinner. “That is a seriously fine piece of work,” said Neville, cradling the gimbri’s round leather back. “Smaller than the other one, isn’t it?” His big hands could practically cover a basketball. With one long thumb he caressed the strings. They whispered dryly.

“You play it with this.” Byron handed him the bow.

He held it awkwardly. Keyboards, reeds, guitar, drums, flute, even accordion: he’d fooled around with plenty of instruments, but nothing resembling a violin. “You sure you want me to?”

It was half-time on the TV, and dark outside already. Through the living room window, yellow light from a street lamp coated the grainy, grey sidewalk, dissolving at its edges like a pointillist’s reverie. A night just like this, he’d first seen how pretty Dory was: the little drops of rain in her hair shining, and it stayed nice as a white girl’s.

Not like Calliope’s. Hers was as naturally nappy as his, worse between her legs. He sneaked a look at her while Byron was showing him how to position the gimbri upright. She was looking straight back at him, her eyes hot and still. Not as pretty as Dory, no, but she let him do things he would never have dreamed of asking of her little sister.

Mr. Moore stood up from the sofa and called to his wife. “Mama, you wanna come see our resident genius’s latest invention in action?”

The gimbri screamed, choked, and sighed. “What on earth?” said Mrs. Moore from the kitchen doorway. She shut her eyes and clamped her lips together as if the awful noise was trying to get in through other ways besides her ears.

Neville hung his head and bit his lower lip. He wasn’t sure whether he was trying to keep from laughing or crying.

“It spozed to sound like that, Byron?” asked Calliope.

“No,” Neville told her. “My fault.” He picked up the bow from his lap, frowning. His older brother had taken him to a Charles Mingus concert once. He searched his memory for an image of the man embracing his big bass, and mimicked it the best he could.

A sweeter sound emerged. Sweeter, and so much sadder. One singing note, which he raised and lowered slowly. High and yearning. Soft and questioning. With its voice.

With its words.

I know you mama, miss me since I’m gone;
I know you mama, miss me since I’m gone;
One more thing before I journey on.

Neville turned his head to see if anyone else heard what he was hearing. His hand slipped, and the gimbri sobbed. He turned back to it.

Lover man, why won’t you be true?
Lover man, why won’t you ever be true?
She murdered me, and she just might murder you.

He wanted to stop now, but his hands kept moving. He recognized that voice, that tricky hesitance, the tone smooth as smoke. He’d never expected to hear it again.

I know you daddy, miss me since I’m gone;
I know you daddy, miss me since I’m gone;
One more thing before I journey on.

I know you cousin, miss me since I’m gone;
I know you cousin, miss me since I’m gone;
It’s cause of you I come to sing this song.

Cruel, cruel sistah, black and white and red;
Cruel, cruel sistah, black and white and red;
You hated me, you had to see me dead.

Cruel, cruel sistah, red and white and black;
Cruel, cruel sistah, red and white and black;
You killed me and you buried me out back.

Cruel, cruel sistah, red and black and white;
Cruel, cruel sistah, red and black and white;
You’ll be dead yourself before tomorrow night.

Finally, the song was finished. The bow slithered off the gimbri’s strings with a sound like a snake leaving. They all looked at one another warily.

Calliope was the first to speak. “It ain’t true,” she said. Which meant admitting that something had actually happened.

But they didn’t have to believe what the song had said.

Calliope’s suicide early the next morning, that they had to believe: her body floating front down in the cistern, her short, rough hair soft as a wet burlap bag. That, and the skeleton the police found behind the retaining wall, with its smashed skull.

It was a double funeral. There was no music.

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Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl’s story collection Filter House co-won the 2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award.  With Cynthia Ward she coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, recipient of a Tiptree Honorable Mention.  She edited WisCon Chronicles 5: Writing and Racial Identity and Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars, and she currently edits reviews for the literary quarterly Cascadia Subduction Zone.  Shawl coedited the 2014 Aqueduct Press anthology Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler, and Rosarium Publishing’s August 2015 anthology Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany.  Shawl’s Belgian Congo steampunk novel Everfair is forthcoming from Tor in 2016.  She serves on the boards of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and the Carl Brandon Society.  She’s fairly active on Twitter and Facebook, and promises to update her homepage soon.