Amanda Gaines


Three days ago, my big sister taxidermied herself and no one was surprised.

I saw her a week prior, when she was still working her way up her knees. She was woozy from anesthetics she bought from a line cook in a 7/11 parking lot, face pale, hands slick with sweat. Precise.

I stood in the doorway of her living room, watching her drag a knife down her calf, her cat batting a plastic ball in the corner. It’s innocuous rattle. Vines with brown leaves spilled out from ceramic pots and dusted the floor from their swaying macrame beds in the ceiling. Spaghetti sauce dried in blackened pots on the counter.

Really? I said.

Double parking isn’t an option before six p.m., she replied.

Who is double parked? I asked.

She looked at me with her pincushion lip curled and brows furrowed, the same face she wore when I told her I was getting back with an ex whose bedroom closet was filled with empty whippets.

All ducks, she told me matter-of-factly, are rapists. She jabbed at the air with her bloody knife with each pronounced syllable. Every. Single. One.

She took a hit of propofol and lifted the skin off her heel like unfurling a wing.

It all started when my sister watched a neighbor’s dog ravage a rabbit six years ago. She was twenty-two. I, eighteen. She cried for hours.

Why couldn’t I save her? she kept asking over the phone. A coronach of chirred Whywhywhy.

I had to get off the phone. She was like this. Delicately intense. Some days, she was a screaming fox stuck in an imaginary trap. On better ones, a linnet singing to an unborn morning. I wish I remembered what excuse I gave her. She would know. Birth dates, candy preferences, the cadence of a hungry voice hovering over a body that cannot protect itself. All that. She could never forget.

There are moments when witnessing someone else fall to pieces becomes an affirmation of normalcy. Togetherness.

This wasn’t one of them.

When I stopped by a few days later to do laundry, the rabbit stood on its speckled hind legs atop her bookshelf, marbled eyes jade. Her mouth twisted upwards, the clay holding up her cheekbones unevenly spread. My sister peeled a scab off her elbow and swayed. I scratched the base of my neck.

On her floor: sewing needles, a gloss gun, cotton batting. I wished I didn’t understand.

Have you eaten? I asked her.

She waved me off and stumbled towards her new pet. She touched the bottom of its whiskered chin and her eyes fluttered.

The only reason, she slurred, I’m still here is you.

I shouldn’t blame her. For the mounting stuff. At least, that’s what I Never Thought of it That Way tells me — a book I’ve been assigned in my accelerated social work program. Mónica Guzmán tells me I should take it up with the government, our bible-thumping mother, the men and women who’ve bitten my sister’s elbows, told her they loved her, then disappeared like shit swirling down a porcelain shaft after staining her bedsheets.

My sister tells me she’s proud of me every time she hugs me goodbye. My big little professional, she says. A tight-fleshed pacemaker.

Mónica Guzmán doesn’t know my sister.

And I don’t blame her for the mounting stuff. Not really. But sometimes–watching her head loll like a blonde ventriloquist doll missing its neck-hand against the suede of her salvaged couch–like today–I do.

Sure, a week prior I called her up to shave our heels down together and preserve them in silica. We got carried away. I hit a varicose vein after a few hours of partying, and my sister had to consult her first-aid kit. She wrapped my foot in old sports bandages, a roll she kept from her cross-country days. I thought of her skin now, dry, soft-hard crystals crawling up her arms. She pressed her thumb into the roof of my cheek.

Don’t do that again, she told me. Don’t be like me.

I tried to roll my eyes but all I saw were whites.

Can I take you home? she asked.

You, I told her, have done enough.

My sister is the most beautiful animal I’ve ever seen.

White plush hair that curls at her temples. Translucent skin, blue-veined and freckled. Wide nail beds, short nails. Ribs jutting through her chest when the sun hits her the right way–her favorite way to be seen–as if she has nothing to hide. A porcelain doll, our mother called her.

You don’t agree? Meet me in the alley behind Wilson and say it to my Skinner. My sister gave it to me. Taught me how to use it. On you. On myself.

My sister gave me a lot of things.

You must think that I am handling this poorly. My sister taught me that, too: how grief seizes us, paralyzes, renders us speechless and seemingly dumb. How in such a state, it’s best to look one’s best. You’ll fill in for what goes unsaid, dig out the intestines of what is spoken and replace it with plastic armatures.

So come over.

Walk up the three flights of rickety stairs covered in dust and spilled polyurethane.
Take note: my cat in the corner, gnawing on a tongue-pink plastic ball. The dried leaves crumbling from arthritic vines hanging from the ceiling. My sister, posed by the side window that overlooks our Morgantown neighborhood with its kicked Schwinns she never learned to ride and Bougainvillea she never book-pressed and brick three-stories owned by college professors she once imagined owning, the sun erupting on her hollow chest, my feet in her lap, her bird-like hands cupping the backs of my ankles, adjusted just so.

AMANDA GAINES is an Appalachian writer and Ph.D. candidate in CNF in Oklahoma State University’s creative writing program. Her poetry and nonfiction are published or awaiting publication in Barrelhouse, Fugue, december, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Willow Springs, Yemassee, Redivider, New Orleans Review, Southeast Review, The Southern Review, Juked, Rattle, Pleiades, SmokeLong Quarterly, Ninth Letter, and Superstition Review.

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