We lived in a small apartment on the highest floor. The rooms were small, the hallways long, and four windows faced the east. We had no ghosts or shadows, nothing to carry with us, so we claimed the apartment and made it ours. I shoved my books together on the dresser, and my sister stamped the walls with her stickers. Strands of my mother’s hair curled up on the bathroom floor like black feathers.
My mother often worked late. Whenever she called and told me the news, I’d pull the quilt, the one my grandma made, to the corner of my room and fold it into a make-shift bed, drawing the excess fabric up my body. Then the door would open, and my sister would come in, quiet as a fawn, and crawl into the space next to me.
The first time she did this, I was surprised but not annoyed. I figured she missed our mother. My sister was five years younger than me and went to our mother for everything, when she scraped her knee at the park, when she needed help with homework. As we lay in the dark, I wondered if she came to me by instinct or out of necessity, if she had a choice.
Planes soared overhead; red lights slipped through the window blinds, skimming our walls. Below us, traffic unravelled through the city. Everything seemed to be moving and coming apart, and I think we would’ve too, if the quilt hadn’t weighed down on us like the ocean, keeping us tethered.
“I miss her too,” I told her. She didn’t respond, but she was always quiet around me. The covers rustled. I stayed still, as if any sudden movement would scare her away. When her chin rested on my shoulder, I looked at my sister, her eyes closed, the way she curled up by my side. She was warm and heavy, someone who felt safe enough to be so close to me.
It was the end of summer. School was starting in two weeks, and my grandma was leaving us soon. Before she left, she wanted to give me and my sister each a hand-made gift. My sister received new curtains. Mine was going to be a beautiful quilt. That night in the kitchen, my grandma told me the story of how an ox trampled her sister. As she spoke, she sewed red cranes and carp fish, the fabric pooling over her lap like a dress.
Her family had descended from farmers and lived in the northern part of the country. Their hands bled from labor and never fully healed. In the winter, their wounds split open, and their ankles swelled. It was almost normal, a coming-of-age, because no one could afford to be beautiful, only brave.
One morning, she woke to her older sister screaming. The air smelled like dirt and blood. Outside, the dust was thick and hurt her eyes. She couldn’t see anything, and when she said this, the skin under her right eye trembled, as if remembering. She could only hear the animal’s heavy breathing, its hooves striking the ground.
“I thought my sister was dying,” she said, “and then I began screaming too.” She pulled the thread taut as a pulse. “My father heard us from the fields. He was the one that drove away the ox. He saved her life. She was only twelve.”
I had just turned thirteen a month ago. It felt exhilarating, as if I had developed a superpower like flight or immense strength. Now, I imagined myself as my grandma’s sister, then my sister as my grandma’s sister, and what I’d do, if I could even do anything, if we could live after that, and how. Then I knew I had to protect my life, and that maybe, one day, I’d have to save my sister’s.
I watched my grandma work on the quilt that would eventually cover her granddaughters over and over again when they were alone. The light seemed to reach for her face. Her story was so brief and bare, and I wondered if that was because she had carried the animal inside of her for so long, there was nothing left of it except the bones.
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