Before my shovel’s blade descends, it scrapes away a two-foot-square surface of interwoven twigs that snap as they break apart; the dried, burnt-red leaves crumble into almost unrecognizable pieces; and the smashed acorns, that have lost their caps, roll farther away from wherever they’ve fallen.
The damp soil evokes a muskiness that I might have savored if not for uncovering deer droppings that hasten my efforts. I force the steel’s edge into the topsoil and toss the excrement into a forest of leafless trees. Then dig, thwacking earth as I force my metal instrument deeper. To bury one’s past, one must reach the depth where disagreements can’t find daylight.
You might think I’m extreme. But I’m sane enough to understand that the real pain I’m trying to dispose of is in my head, my brain, and my thoughts, so this ritual may not be enough.
When the flat blade thuds against unyielding roots, I kneel, muddying my jeans, as my bare hands claw, my nails filling with blackness. I scrap away only a quarter-inch more, but this primal act satisfies.
The first to be entombed is a book of family photographs.
Yesterday, after Thanksgiving dinner, my mother and I sat on her sofa and opened an old photo album. Its pages, covered with buckling plastic, held distorted memories of my youth. Had my face really kept its baby fat cheeks and chubby body long after my fraternal twin sister slimmed out of hers? Most of the pictures were from our summer vacations.
When my sister and I were five, Mother told us we each deserved some alone time with her. That year, I spent the summer with Aunt Susie in Montana while Caroline vacationed with Mom in Mexico. I thought I’d gotten the better deal because I got to ride a real pony on a ranch while my sister got sunburned at the beach. At least, that’s I how I remembered it. I flattened the crease in a protective plastic sheath to see an image I hadn’t recalled—my mother and sister dressed in matching embroidered Mexican peasant tops.
Caroline’s curly, blond hair—like my mom’s—always glowed in the sun. Whereas my thick and dark mane, blunt-cut short as a child, resembled a helmet on a squatty figure who grew into what others called ‘big boned.’
The next year, it was my turn to be with Mom in Mexico, but Caroline made such a fuss that we all went, including Aunt Susie. I was surprised, as I turned the pages, to find that most of the shots were just of my mother and Caroline.
Mom pointed to one and said, “Look, that’s you when you were trying to jump the waves?”
“No, Mom, that’s not me, I’m Carley,”I corrected my mother whose memory came and went like a car radio station rounding a mountain.
“Oh? But aren’t you sweet in that yellow polka-dotted swimsuit? Now, everyone, isn’t Caroline cute?”
“No, Mom, I’m Carley. Caroline died.”
Caroline was sixteen when she drowned in a boating accident. The afternoon we learned the news, my mother sat on the back porch steps of our summer house and stared straight ahead at nothing. Not the geese wandering up from the lake and territorially squawking. Not the late afternoon sun faltering behind ever-darkening clouds. And not—despite my taking her hands in mine as I said, “I miss her, too”—even me.
I’d discovered how to get my mom’s attention when I was seven. One Sunday morning, two women with bluish white hair approached our IHOP table. Caroline was waving her placemat drawing in the air, while beaming what would become her effervescent cheerleader smile. “Isn’t that pretty,” one lady proclaimed. “Aren’t you the sweet one,” the other one cooed. I flung a crayon that stuck in the second lady’s over-sprayed do.
“Carley, you bad girl!”
After that, it was easy to get noticed. Mom dragged me to our neighbor’s house to apologize for hitting instead of playing nicely. She begged the drugstore manager not to press charges after discovering a stolen lipstick. She was called to the principal’s office after I got caught cheating on an exam. Lectures followed, only her and me. But that time I was pulled over for unsupervised driving and a DUI, she drove us home in silence—a punishment I hadn’t anticipated.
Caroline wasn’t an angel, but to our mother it was always different, even when my sister got pregnant and Mom “fixed” the situation.
On our sixteenth birthday, Mom threw us a party. One of Caroline’s friends had a boat, so my sister insisted all cake-eating and present-opening occur prior to her high noon sail. On our birthdays, we always exchanged something made of gold. Since our dad, who died in the army before we were born, was awarded a medal, our mom thought his girls should remember him on their birthdays. We rarely did. Instead, we relished giving and getting each other small pieces of department store jewelry. That year, I’d found a necklace with the letter C for Caroline.
Our mother clinked her glass with a fingernail as she called out to our party of twelve, “Let’s hear from the birthday girls. Caroline, why don’t you start?”
“Okay, here goes: Sweet sixteen and I’ve been kissed, can’t say that about my sis!”
Her friends, all a year or two older, smirked and laughed. My mother smiled, though to her credit, I could see it hid her embarrassment, for she quickly added: “Time to cut the cake.”
While Mom’s knife sliced, Caroline broke from her pack to come over. “You know, I was just kidding, right?”
“Right,” I said, keeping my sarcasm inaudible.
Caroline snatched the long rectangular present I held and shook it as she handed me her gift. We tore open our boxes. She’d given me a key chain that she’d had engraved. “For when you’re driving again. I thought it might give you luck.”I couldn’t recall such thoughtfulness and hugged her so hard she practically fell backwards.
“Whoa, sis. Now, let’s see what you got me. Oh,” she said, after holding the necklace at arm’s length. “You know, this would look much nicer on you,” she said, and spun me around as she undid the clasp and hung it around my neck before turning me back to face her. “Gotta run, my entourage is waiting!” The second and last item to be buried is that necklace landing with the faintest thud as the chain tangles itself. The lackluster gold dulls further in its now humus-consigned walls.
My sister and I didn’t argue so much as we never got along. I’d read books about twins, even fraternal ones, having some kind of bond. But what I had was living proof of who I wasn’t, who I would never be, and who I never wanted to be like. Despite our differences, I couldn’t figure out how to separate myself from her. Even years after her death, I still can’t.
I grab a handful of what nature has recomposed. My fingers close into a fist to filter the particles and soften their fall, hoping to let go of the rivalry, anger, and sadness that I’ve held onto. With both hands, I sweep, into this grave, the world I’ve unearthed. Afterward I lie down and stare into branches that crisscross a uniform gray, blank slate sky. I scrounge around in my pocket for the keychain she’d given me. My grasp embeds grime within a few of the indented letters. I rub my thumb across the rest so the engraved words appear bolded: “Sisters at Heart.”
Maybe ridding myself of the bad will allow the good to take hold.
When I sit up, I discover I’ve startled a deer, frozen in place, while her unaware single fawn nibbles at the underbrush nearby. Then it, too, stops and looks up.
I wonder who they see.
Sylvia Schwartz studied literary fiction at The Writers Studio and One Story in New York. Her stories have appeared in the Potato Soup Journal; Savant-Garde; The Write Launch; Bold + Italic Magazine; Bull & Cross; Edify Fiction; The Airgonaut; The Vignette Review; and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. She is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine and can be reached at www.sylviaschwartz.com