On the first day of summer, my sister asked me if I believed in god.
“I’m leaving, Rainey,” she said, while we scrubbed the bay windows—dim on our side, bright on the other, where blonde tendrils of grass rustled against the glass. Vinegar stung my eyes and the raw hangnails on my pinkies. The other kids washed clothes in the backyard. “But I have one concern. You’re too young not to have a sister.”
“And I can’t leave you with the ditzies. They’re no good.” Iris called our half-sisters, daughters from our father’s other wives, the ditzies. Our mother was the first wife. That made us special. “Brainwashed bad influences.”
“Where are you going?” I picked at a soap streak with my nail.
“That’s why I’ve found you a new sister. You can’t be alone, you still need someone’s bed to climb into and cry sometimes.”
Sunbeams kaleidoscoped through the window and spotted against the wall. The dust motes Iris shook out of the curtains looked like fireflies. She leaned against the wall and told me about my new sister while I cleaned—the glass hot under the soap, the acid irritating my fingertips.
My new sister’s name was Jude. She smoked marijuana and had sex with men and other girls. She lived in an alcoholic’s bathroom over in Milson, slept in the tub naked and in the water. She’d wake up shivering with her skin blue, the cold her alarm clock. She could never drain the water all the way because three betta fish lived in there, and they’d nibble at her bare skin while she tried to sleep.
“Those are all sins,” I said, because it’s what I was supposed to say.
“She’s better than this place. I want you to be better than this place.”
“She lives in a bathtub.”
“She’s better spiritually.”
“She doesn’t sound real. She sounds like a false idol.”
“They want us to find God, but Rainey, I was born believing and I’ve decided to forget,” she said. “I’m going somewhere where sin doesn’t exist. Where I can worship the Earth instead of something I can’t see.”
“Take me with you. If you know somewhere without sin, then I can never go to hell if I go there.”
Iris looked at me in the window, eye contact reflected. “Do you believe in God, Rainey?”
“I don’t know. I do and I don’t.”
“Do you fear God?”
“Then you’re not ready.”
I kept scrubbing, our reflections in the glass like a flawed polaroid.
At church, I sat between Iris and Gabriel, who I would marry one day. He was my father’s brother’s son. He nudged one of his knees towards mine until they bumped together. I didn’t want to touch him because that would make me a sinner, but it was also a sin to disobey a man who would one day be my husband, so I didn’t pull my knee away from his. His skin buzzed against mine through the entire service, my skirt bunched between our thighs. If Iris would take me to her sinless place, this wouldn’t even matter. I’d be absolved.
After church, Iris and I sat outside the chapel and watched everyone walk up the path, like a trail of pilgrims: babies on backs, toddlers paired up hand in hand, mothers’ skirts ruffling in the breeze. We wefted our fingers through dandelion stalks. Their fluff snagged in our hair, white-blonde, wavy and brushed out. Hers reached her waist. Mine only the small of my back. I’d snagged the ends in a loom and had to be cut free. Iris had a heart shaped nose and a heart shaped face, and her hair twirled down her cheeks like ribbons from a just off-kilter middle part. In comparison, when I saw my own face in window reflections, there was something slightly wrong about it.
Once everyone left, Iris told me we were going into town. We weren’t allowed to go into town, but this wasn’t a sin. We just weren’t allowed.
“Can I sit on the handlebars of your bike?” I said.
“You’re too old for that.”
Ahead of me, her dress tangled around the bike frame and whipped against the gears. She didn’t sit and pedal; she stood with her weight forward and glided like a bird banking. The air smelled sweet and dusty. Silt plumed from her bike tires; dust gummed my lips and mouth; cotton gauzed the air.
I parked my bike next to hers. We’d stopped by the railroad, where tussocks of scrub grass grew between the planks. A barley field unfurled on the other side. Iris put one hand on my shoulder, popped the top two buttons of my blouse, and pried the collar open. Her knuckle grazed my neck. Our clothes always hemmed us from throat to our ankle. She untucked the shirt— short sleeved for the summer, white with fine blue stripes and cap sleeves—all the way around.
“I want to be holy,” I said.
“You’re a baby still.” She pushed her finger across my scalp to side part my hair. “No one is holy. Only naïve.” She tugged my khaki skirt up to brace my ribs and folded the hem so it would hit below the knee. She smiled at me. “You look really pretty, Rainey.”
I’d been to Milson with Iris before. We’d first gone two years ago. She’d made me read the Bible all the way through and asked, “So tell me, is there anything in there that says we’re not allowed?”
Unlike the ditzies and the rug rats and the rowdies, no one paid attention to us. Father called us silent angels, golden girls. Apples of the eye uneaten on the kitchen counter, trusted to recite Psalms and dust the curtains, trusted to not roll off and bruise our fragile skin by being kissed by a boy or rolling a dice or accidentally overhearing rock n’ roll. Each night we scrubbed each other’s backs red with lye soap, no lavender for us humble girls. We smelled like skin, sunlight, nothing else. We untangled and braided each other’s hair, prayed, and went to bed. No one had to tell us what to do. We were good: never complained about our broken nails, our knees aching against the hardwood or the pew, never asked for more bread, or a new hair ribbon. Never complained about our betrotheds, even if we didn’t like him.
The first time we only looked from up the road, dusty and dressed in white blouses, our breath coarse from the forty-minute walk. It wasn’t too exciting. Low-buildings with severe corners and billboards lined the road. Women, on all of them. Flushed next to a sunscreen bottle, back arched on a convertible hood, bare shouldered under a radio station’s number, dewy with her naked spine to us with a can of 7 Up. Concrete shimmered in the heat. When a car drove towards us, we ran into the brambles, scraping our shins. Crushed blackberries smeared our skirts. We burned those skirts because the stains wouldn’t wash out and I held my wrist to a candle to get used to what hell would feel like.
The second time we went to Milson, we bought peaches from a grocery store and ate them while we walked home with the juice freckling the sidewalk. It dried tacky on our wrists. We didn’t talk to anyone except the cashier, and realized we looked too crisp and too ancient for a place like this, a place that smelled like gasoline and melting tires, surveyed by the billboard women with their lipstick and exposed collarbones. We bought candy from the 7-Eleven and I only got through one bite, the sweetness so overpowering it hurt.
I stopped going. Iris would leave while the ditzies baked pies with mothers, the rug rats collected eggs from the coop, and the rowdies mucked the barn stalls and wrapped chicken wire around the broken fences and didn’t do a good job of either. I’d do her chores and mine. It was good repentance, so I didn’t mind. I didn’t go back until it was time to meet my new sister.
Jude stood taller than us with narrow wrists and long limbs. Her hair was the colour of dark honey, salty and unbrushed and waist-length except for short bangs parted in the center. Her eyes shone like new pennies. She wore wrap sandals and round sunglasses with rose lenses. When she hugged me, she smelled like dirt and potpourri—both ends of a flower’s life cycle smudged against her collarbones. Her tiered skirt hit halfway down her shins, modest, but she knotted her shirt to hug her breasts and her navel poked out like she was trying to remind everyone she was a descendant of the original sin all the time. Sunburn grazed her nose, her cheeks already tanned in the first month of summer.
She’d bought Iris and I milkshakes and herself a cherry flavoured coke. “I didn’t know what kind she likes. I went with strawberry. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, she likes strawberry,” Iris said. I’d never had a milkshake before.
I sipped it while we walked. The sweetness flooded my tongue like glue, but I wanted to drink it because Jude gave it to me.
“Tell me about yourself, Rainey,” she said.
“Iris is my older sister. I have a lot of sisters, but we’re the oldest. Well, Iris is the oldest. In a few years I’ll marry Gabriel.”
“None of those are about you, sweetie,” she chuckled, and soda bubbles fizzed her laugh. I wondered what it would be like to kiss her, and that wasn’t something I usually wondered when I looked at someone. It also made me wonder what it would be like to be drunk. I’d never wondered that before either.
“I don’t know if I believe in God,” I said. Our feet made metronomic clicks on the sidewalk. My temples beaded with sweat and my baby hairs frizzed. I tried to smooth them down.
“Rainey, don’t—” Iris said.
“It’s fine,” Jude interrupted her. “No, no I don’t.”
“What do you believe in then?”
“I suppose, I just believe in people.”
“You believe people are good?”
“I just believe that we’re here.” She looked forward while we walked, but I looked at her. She had fine lines around her mouth that made her look older than she was. She was the most ancient person I’d ever met. An oracle who hasn’t realized they’re not a child.
Iris led us into a department store that smelled like polyester.
“Can I leave some clothes at your house to grab when I leave?” Iris shuffled through a rack of dresses. She tugged the shoulder of her blouse. “I’m not running away in this. I literally look oppressed.”
I drank the milkshake and the bottom of the cup rasped with the last phlegmy sip. Iris tried on her clothes. Milk dripped down the plastic and into my palm. Jude leaned her shoulder to the wall, each of us on opposite sides of the dressing room curtain.
I mirrored her pose. “Do you really live in a bathroom?”
“Couldn’t afford to rent a bedroom.”
“Do you want to be my sister? I don’t think Iris even likes being my sister.” I rattled the straw around the cup mouth.
“I still don’t know much about you, but I think we could be great sisters. I’ve always wanted a little sister. I want to get to know you, so we can be real sisters.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I whispered.
“Anything. I just want to know something. About you. Not your sister, not Gabriel, not your parents. Not about God.”
I thought a moment, my life lacking the foreign reach Jude’s must have had, fourteen years of only dust and the gaze of the family. “I’ve never listened to music except hymns in church. We’re not allowed to. But sometimes I hear it in my head. In dreams, maybe, I don’t know where it comes from, or how I know it or where I learned it. It feels like magic. But like it’s not allowed for some reason. Is that good enough?”
“I’ve got a record player. You can listen to all the music you like. And you know Rainey? You seem like a real darling girl.” She corner-smiled and held out her hand. I took it, her palm cold from the Coke can, glued to my sugary ice cream grip. I saw Iris’s stiff cotton clothes drop to the floor through the gap at the bottom of the curtain. I wondered what she looked like in her escape outfit. A version of her that existed so close to me, and that I would never see.
That night, Iris plumed my hair into thirds. “Did you like her?”
I nodded, and it tugged the base of the plait. “I like her.”
“You don’t have to just say that. Be honest.”
“I liked her. Really. Where are you going to Iris?”
“I’m leaving in a few days.”
“A commune. It’s not far. Just a bus ride. Just a few hours. Jude thinks it will be a good idea for me. She says I’m a free spirit. A place like this is killing me. It’s actually killing me.” She dropped the braid, and the wet rope slapped my back. “Is that okay?”
“Maybe we could all go with you. Me. And Jude.”
“Jude can’t go. She has other stuff to deal with, okay. And neither can you. You’re too young.”
“I’ll miss you.”
“That’s why Jude is here. So you won’t be alone. She can be your sister. Don’t you want that?”
I wanted her to be my something. Sister could be fine, maybe the word didn’t matter as long as she was there, with cherry coke sticking on the corner of her lip, smelling like smoke and dried roses. She could buy me thrifted clothes and dress me like her, the sleeves rolled up to bare my arms, my midriff winking between my shirt and skirt hem. She could buy me another strawberry milkshake and I’d drink it while we sat on the porch at sunset, and she’d smoke a cigarette and offer me a puff because I was curious about the scratchy heat. I’d sit on her bathroom counter and she’d do my makeup and dab carmine lipstick onto my mouth like an indirect kiss.
Mom said I’d grow up to look like Iris. If little girls grew up to be their sisters, I’d want to be Jude’s. I wouldn’t be afraid to show off my ankles or clavicle. I’d have breakable, beautiful wrists, smell like menthol, my hair in strings that fell to my waist like a beaded curtain. I wouldn’t brush it, and Jude would part it from my face like someone would before walking through a doorway.
Iris left three days later, on a Sunday morning before I woke up. I didn’t hear, slept through her leaving. I went to church without her, my hair damp at the roots from her braid. Normally, we untied them and let the sun melt into our skulls and trickle the heat into our hair while we walked. It was the last thing I had of her, so I left it cold and snug.
My mother asked me where Iris was and I said I didn’t know. I sat next to Gabriel, like I always did, with Iris’s empty space heavy on the other side. He nudged his knee against mine, like he always did. Hand next to mine on the pew, he caught my pinky with his, then slid the whole edge of his hand flat to mine. I started to twitch my hand away, but felt naked without Iris on my other side, like everyone was watching me. If I were Iris, I’d get up and leave. I wouldn’t fear hell. I wouldn’t fear judgement. If I were Jude, I wouldn’t even care. I wouldn’t believe in an afterlife. Nothing I did would matter.
I collected oranges from the grove in a wicker basket, something Iris and I used to do together. It was the last week of June, the evening sky was peach-skinned with a citrine breeze. No one believed me when I said I didn’t know where she’d gone, even though it was the truth and God should know that, and if God knew it, his messengers should know it too. Liar, so I recited Romans all day. Liar, so I stood with my arms outstretched, holding cups of water until I dropped them. Liar, so a belt’s leather stung against my palms.
I collected the oranges because it was a chore I could do without being looked at.
When something hit between my shoulder blades, I thought it was a fallen fruit. I spun to find the source, but something viscous sept down my spine. I was struck in the arm, next. An egg. The shell bruised on impact, then fractured, the porcelain shards stuck to my skin. The next hit my chest and splattered over my collar and onto my face. Sulphuric goo clung to my lips and gummed in one of my eyes; my blinks clogged. I ducked under the orchard canopy, but two more clipped my legs. The next got the back of my head, and the innards gelled through my hair.
I wasn’t holding the basket anymore. I didn’t know where I’d left it. My cheeks were wet and I didn’t know if I was crying or just yolky. It felt like I’d bathed in amniotic gunk, like I was back inside my mother, been pulled out of her womb before my time. Eggs burst like suns on my dress and bled down my legs. Shell stuck to my cheeks and clothes.
Two orange trees arched over me like a trellis. My eyes stung. Gabriel and four of his friends—Iris called them the rowdies because they were bothersome in church and didn’t do their chores well—untucked themselves from the thicket of orange trees. I crossed my arms over my chest like I could hide their damage, or like I had to hide that I was a girl even though I couldn’t.
“Everyone knows you’re lying,” Gabriel said. I couldn’t move without egg sticking me together, in the crooks of my elbows or the backs of my knees or the fissures around my fingernails.
“I’ll try to get her back,” I stuttered, and sheltered my face when he approached, though he had no more eggs.
He grabbed my wrist and pulled it away from my face. “We don’t want her back.”
“If she comes back, tell her we don’t want her here anymore. We’re a family here. God is merciful. But if she renounces God we don’t have to take her back.”
“Please,” I cried, as my knees buckled. “I haven’t renounced God. I haven’t. Just let me go. I haven’t.”
“You protect her.”
“I don’t. I’m not.” I shook my head and tried to tug out of his hand, but he gripped harder and pulled my wrist down. He grabbed my other arm around my sleeve hem—where an egg had hit—and dug into the bruise.
“Please Gabriel, don’t hurt me. I don’t know where she is. I didn’t lie. I love God. Please. I didn’t lie. I promise I didn’t lie.” I turned my head away from him. “I didn’t want her to go.”
“You have no humility. I can’t believe I wanted to marry you.” He let go of my wrist with such force it bruised. The five of them walked down the orange grove path. I stood in the pink evening haze and the egg scabbed onto my skin until it cracked.
I found the address Jude had given me. A light glowed from the attic. The sepia lawn was dotted with a rusted bike, disintegrating newspapers, a single pink flip-flop. The sky had gone lavender, the moon chalky and low. She answered the door wearing a bathrobe. Her hair felted over her shoulders. Inside, the dark house smelled like smoke. A lava lamp blobbed like a radioactive green zygote.
“Rainey.” It hurt for her to say my name. “What happened?”
I told her about Gabriel and the eggs in the orange grove. She braced her arms against the doorframe and pushed her hand back through her hair. Her eyes opaled by the end. “Undo it,” I said.
She touched a yolky string of my hair and ran it between two fingers. It flattened and stayed in its ironed-out shape. She cupped her hand around the sphere of my shoulder. “I can’t bring her back.”
“No. All of it,” I said. I didn’t want protection from anyone. I didn’t want to be saved. I just wanted her to soap me up and drown me, gently, in a bathtub of goat’s milk, until I came up clean and impure and gasping for air, a holy woman in no god’s eyes. I didn’t want to be a virgin or a saint. I didn’t want to be divine. Not on Earth and not in heaven.
The air in Jude’s bathroom beaded with humidity. Paint peeled from the walls like fracturing clay and mildew grew in the grout. The mirror fogged, a smiley face and a heart with an arrow through it traced into the corner. Moisture dripped from the ceiling. A shallow layer of water sloshed in the tub and an ashtray singed next to a soap bar. I’d imagined plants on the walls and fish jumping floral loops out of the water. I’d imagined the lights low and the water rosy and candles on the surface like a séance. I’d imagined Jude lying there tragic, beautiful, like a Renaissance painting of a goddess. Her skin like marble, her hair part of the water.
Jude ran the bath and the tap gurgled out in heaves. There were no fish. The water speckled with rust. As heat filled the room, the finger paintings on the mirror dimmed, then disappeared.
“Clean me,” I said.
Jude sinewed out of her bathrobe. The silk slumped off her shoulders and plunged past her breasts and ribs. She wasn’t much older than me, three years, but shaped like a woman when I wasn’t yet, her hips and chest and waist carved out. My body still soft like a child, my legs covered in blonde down. It took me longer to undress; I had buttons to undo and the muslin snagged around my elbows. I left my clothes on the ground like a moulting.
She got into the water first. I wasn’t embarrassed to be naked in front of her. She was my sister. I felt less ashamed unclothed, bared of the egg yolk oozing into the cotton. She sat with her back against the tub lip, and I sat in front of her. Rust swirled around my thighs. The faucet glugged and I barely felt the water. Dried egg peeled off my skin and floated on the surface, stuck to the porcelain edge.
She spilled water over my head and as it trickled down my chest, cold clung to my torso in ribbons. At first I hugged my knees to my chest, then melted into the water.
“They say you become a woman when you bleed,” she said, and scrubbed soap into my scalp. “You become a woman when they hurt you.” I didn’t know if this was a consolation or a warning, whether it was about me, or about her, or about Iris. Maybe just a truth.
My sister would be a good cult leader. Before I’d even met Jude, she was already a god to me. Iris knew how to write a holy tale and made this girl and her bathtub divine. And maybe she was: unbaptizing me like that, baptizing me like that. Cleaning me and making me anew. She cleansed me of those embryonic remains like I was a newborn, like she’d rebirthed me, slipped a rib out of her side and whittled me from that. The water caressed my tender palms and the bruises blooming on my arms and hips. She untangled my hair with her hands; her fingers combed against my back. Cold gripped me from the waist up. Under the surface, Jude’s legs were slippery and smooth against mine. The water smelled like honeysuckle.