We were seven sisters. Hair the color of moonlight shining on snow-capped mountains, legs as straight and strong as the ponderosas in the hills. “The number of perfection,” our father said, although we knew our mother disagreed. It wasn’t that she didn’t love us, but she worried. We were too young to worry back then, too happy just to be seven sisters with our father and mother, living together in this world.
We became the seven colors of the rainbow. Back when we were small our mother sent us outside and we ran through the woods. We gathered wild strawberries and the red juice ran down our chins. We chased the sunsets, the hems of our skirts singed orange with its embers. We crushed marigolds between our fingertips and used the petals to perfume our necks with yellow. We planted seeds and watched the shoots spring from the dirt, green and full of new life. The earth was ours back then, ours to explore and enjoy and love. We climbed to the peaks of mountains and laughed beneath the welkin blue. We counted stars in the indigo pre-dawn night, and we rolled down hills blooming with lupine of every shade of violet. When we came home to our mother with scraped knees and torn dresses, she cleaned our cuts and kissed our bruises and told us we must always stick together. “The world can be a cruel place,” she said. “Some day you may have no one but each other.” We crossed our hearts and promised her. It was an easy promise to make.
We became the seven notes of a musical scale, do to sol to ti. We traded the notes between ourselves to make chords and arpeggios. We learned to harmonize, to tune our voices to sing major sevenths and diminished fourths. We couldn’t keep silent, no matter how hard we tried. We sang and hummed and whistled. Sometimes our father complained about the noise, but we knew he really loved it. We could play instruments, but we didn’t need to. Our own voices were enough. We opened our mouths, and everyone turned to listen. One night we rode to the top of a Ferris wheel, and when the gears stuck and the wheel stopped turning, we sat in our basket high among the clouds and watched the colors of the carnival shining like spotlights into the sky, crimson and gold and lavender. One sister began to sing, and then another, and then another, until we were all singing, all seven of us as one. Everyone joined in, first on the Ferris wheel and then throughout the fair. Imagine it, a whole carnival filled with one song ringing from every single person. We felt so important that night to have started it all.
We became the seven seas. In our father’s eyes we were perfect. He saw in us cool, clear water, sunlight shining through us like jewels after a storm, heard the sound of the waves against the shore and felt the quiet stillness of night. But our mother knew better. She knew what was to come, that the world would come and take from us what it wanted, leave us soiled and ruined if we weren’t careful. “You have no idea yet what you are capable of, what is inside each and every one of you,” she said, and she told us that although we were seven sisters we were unique, each with our own color and wind and breeze, that we could call forth ships and tie ourselves to the rhythms of the heavens. Like the seas, we had our own talents and gifts, ways that we could connect people or tear them apart. Some of us loved science, wanted to learn about the gravity that pulled the tides, held the planets in their orbits. Others preferred to cook, to combine ingredients, season them with salt and watch them bubble and boil and warm. Some wanted to explore the mysteries of the universe, find the cures to illness and pollution, make waters and people healthy and clean. Some felt most alive when we were painting worlds into being, stretching our hands across piano keys, finding the perfect metaphor for the way the waves hammered the shore.
We wanted to be things: doctors, astronauts, painters, explorers, musicians, climatologists, chefs. Our mother told us to dream. She would help us. She would pay for our schooling and send us to tutors and give us everything we needed to shape this world into the place we wanted it to be.
“You should not be pushing them like this,” our father told her. “They are perfect already.” But our mother told him that he did not know what it was like, to be seven women in this world. He did not know all the terrible things that could happen. “They do not need to be afraid,” said our father. “I will protect them.”
We became the seven wonders of the world. Our father whistled, and we fell in line, the oldest to the youngest, and we felt his pride. We stood in a row while people admired us, compared our noses and foreheads, noted which sister was the prettiest, which was the thinnest, which had the brightest curls. We tightened in our stomachs and straightened our shoulders and hoped they would choose us. Some preferred the sister who was built strong and sturdy, like the pyramids in Egypt, with powerful legs that kept her grounded. Others chose the sister who was tall, willowy, natural as the hanging gardens, with long curly hair and eyes that blossomed when she smiled. Still others chose the two who stood as stiff as statues, who carved and shaped their bodies through exercise, the one adding mass to her muscles to make herself large, the other spending hours running on the beach to make her limbs long and lean. They wore low necklines and sleeveless shirts to show their chiseled muscles, and our father’s friends smiled in approval. “They are all beautiful,” our father would say when he showed us off, and his friends would shake their heads and say, “Yes, but oh, this one here, she is really something.”
One sister played the harp for our father’s friends, and her music became a temple that pointed the audience to God. One wrote poems that immortalized loved ones, her words the stones that entombed and honored the departed. Perhaps the lighthouse sister was their favorite, though. The way she stood so tall and bright and sang warnings about the dangers that were to come.
We became the seven deadly sins. We didn’t mean to be, but it happened. Some were more beautiful. Some were smarter. Some more talented. We opened our mouths to sing and listened this time to the individual sounds that we made, some clearer, some higher. We stood in front of a mirror and lined ourselves up side-by-side, looked at ourselves through others’ eyes. We saw then that some were prettier. Some would always shine brighter.
One sister starved herself. She could not make her body as thin as the others’, and so she gave in to gluttony, ate all she could and then rid herself of it, again and again. She tied a string around her waist each morning, sucked in her breath until the ribs poked through her shirt. Her mind grew focused on this new goal, and she forgot all her old ones.
One sister stayed up late into the night studying. Some people called her ugly, but she had always been the smartest, and now she was determined to leave the others far behind. She would show the world what a girl was capable of, show that a girl could cure illnesses and solve equations that would puzzle the smartest men. In her ambition and pride she forgot about her sisters, was even ashamed and embarrassed of some of us. She forgot how we used to sing together, how when our voices intertwined in harmonies no one could look away.
One sister bought new dresses every day. She was the most beautiful of all, and she knew it. When she walked by, everyone stared and pointed. They followed her, worshipped her even. It wasn’t enough, though. She gulped at the attention like it was air, water, food — greedily, hungrily. It became necessary. Without it, she could not survive.
One sister trained her body to run. She was fast. She won races all over the world, and she laughed at the other sisters’ obsession with beauty or brains. Her body would take her to the top, her long muscles and her powerful lungs. But one day she fell and broke her ankle and was told she would never run again. Her fury was magnificent. She raged at anyone who came near, was determined to find someone to blame. Her wrath consumed her.
One sister despaired. She had wanted to be so many things, but she failed at them all. She knew there was no point to the struggle, not when she was only one of seven talented and beautiful sisters. She became lazy, spent her days lying in the grass and watching the clouds, slept late into the morning and stayed up far into the night reading books that gave her nothing but pleasure. If she could not be what she wanted, she would not try.
One sister hated how easily success came to the other sisters and not to her. For her it was not enough to give up. If she could not have it, she did not want anyone to have it. Our mother warned her to rejoice at our successes, but she was blinded by envy. At night she cut off the other sisters’ hair and tore their dresses, burned their books and pencils. She spread rumors, told our neighbors we had done terrible things so that they could not look at us the same way, never again see in us the seven innocent and pure sisters who had once united a carnival in song.
One sister found validation from anyone who would give it to her. She stayed out late each night trying to make men notice. She craved their attention and accepted it at any cost. She let them touch her and whisper lies into her ear, anything to make her feel loved and important again.
“My beautiful girls,” said our mother. “What are you doing to yourselves?” It was not too late to keep the promise we had made to her so long ago. We were all bright and strong and capable, and the world was still our own, but we were starting to forget.
We became the seven continents, valleys and mountains and plains, long endless steppes and jungles and beaches, once bound together in a single mass, and now broken apart. One sister became Antarctica, cold and silent and inscrutable. One became the deserts of Africa, hot sun and priceless jewels that people would war over. One became Europe, ethereal and dark. One North America with its powerful trees and great lakes, and one South America, rainforests and colorful birds and bright blue beaches. One Australia, with beauty untouched and wild. One Asia, full of spice and mystery and mountains that could have led the people to heaven.
We were everything good in this world, and everything dangerous. And it stole from us the things it wanted. It pillaged and mined and destroyed. When we danced too boldly, it reached out and grabbed our bodies. When we opened our mouths to sing, it sang over us. When we offered our ideas, it had better ones, louder ones. We tried to be the things we had dreamt of becoming, but it was harder than our mother had said it would be.
One sister was too beautiful, and the world would not be satisfied without owning her. So it modeled and showcased her like she was an animal, made her resent the beauty that she had been given. One night men raped her again and again, and she returned to us damaged and cowering.
One sister was not beautiful enough, and the world had other uses for her. It would use her body to make strong sons, work her until she was haggard and old, because what harm was there in that when she was not beautiful to begin with?
One sister was too smart, held too many answers inside of her. But the world never learned to listen, never saw past her wild hair and too-bright eyes. And so it silenced her, yelled over her until she finally learned to stop talking.
One sister was too trusting. She believed what the world said, welcomed it into her home without skepticism or doubt and lived the way it told her to live. And after it misused and took advantage of her, she became tough and calloused, the most hardened of us all.
One sister was too strong, and the world feared her. She made it feel insecure. And so it found the thing that most made her powerful and alive and took that from her, left her lifeless and despairing and weak.
One sister was too quiet. She had important things to say and wonderful talents to share, but she did not want to fight to be noticed. The world assumed that meant she had nothing to give, and so it ignored and overlooked her.
One sister was too wild and could not be tamed. And so the world gave her a husband who beat her when she disobeyed him. One night he went too far. Her bones broke under his anger, and she came crawling back to us.
Then we remembered the way we once ran over the hills when we were children, played in the colors of the rainbow and sang harmonies into the night. We knew then that our mother had been right all along in her caution and worry, but what was there to do about it anymore?
We became the seven daughters of Atlas. Our father joined our mother in her worry for us, and he walked the rest of his life with the terrible burden. We grew up. We were chased by important lovers, and we birthed important sons, men whose names would be remembered long after ours were forgotten. They founded cities and empires while our bodies were claimed and used and discarded. Our father trembled for us, said, “I must protect you somehow, like I promised so long ago.” He drew us back to himself, hid us away in the house of our childhood in hopes that he could turn back the clock, keep us young and innocent and safe.
But that was not enough. “You will never be safe while you are on this earth,” said our father. “Not as seven sisters.” He had another idea. He would turn us into stars and set us among the clouds. “And whenever I am lonely, I will look up and see my seven perfect daughters shining brightly.” We begged him not to do it. We said that we loved this world. We would rather live in it and be damaged by it than to hide away forever in the heavens. We would grow stronger. We would learn to fight back. We would retrain our voices to sing and shout and lead the people in song. There was power in seven sisters, all one and all unique. If he gave us time, we would show him. But he said this was the only way. This was the way to be strong enough to last through the generations. We would be remembered, worshipped, studied.
The night was cold and clear when he took us out onto the hill, the sky dark and waiting. There was new snow on the mountain. He hugged us goodbye. “Sailors will use you to find their way home, and children will sing songs about you, and every culture across the world will make up legends of your origins, and I will know that you are protected.” And so one by one, he lit us on fire and flung us into the heavens, high above the earth, and there we burned, forever safe and separate and silent. We are there still, and from our place in the sky we look down upon the earth that once belonged to us, the continents shifting and shaking, the rivers carving new valleys and canyons, the wind keening, the snow falling, the oceans rising, the ponderosas growing straight and strong on the hills.about the author