Anne Valente

 

Sister, I Paved the Way


Sister, I lit a match for you.
I threw it burning down a tunnel, that same-dark passage you traveled after I did, two bullets burst from the same barrel. Snaked and winding, a fire-eating tongue: what darkness swallowed my match. See this blaze, this scorched canal. A trail I left to light your way. A blaze that in the end flamed out, that burned both your hands and mine.
But I wanted.
I want.
In an absence of fire, I bled light for you.
A light beyond breaching, beyond fighting your way wild-boned through the flood, through a deluge of light and sound and the solidity of your own screaming, of gasping through gills that became lungs to the ocean of this world.

I know tunnels. Muted pink. What walls we once knew. A speckled silence that held my weight, my hands pressed against the barricades of membranes, small kicks and punches and hiccups that told her I was here before I came shouting, my lungs all storm, a roll of thunder that became a battle cry.
I know tunnels of another kind. The same you know. Flicker, then a flame. The palest spark that caught the hems of our dresses, the seams of our jeans, that climbed the length of our coats and the tendrils of our hair before razing us both to the ground. Soft hands. Eyelashes against skin. The lingering of a tongue that traced both of our lips. The featherweight of sheets and an arm draped asleep across my body. A lantern I lit for you, a glitter of breadcrumbs, a burn waiting out here for you beyond matches.
What light I struck to illumine your way.
What light I threw down a well instead.

Sister, I know you watched me.
This flame gun, a trail I failed to blaze.
When you came screaming I was already gone, five years old and already kneeling. The crook of a boy’s elbow around my neck, his other hand pinning my arm behind my back. My knees scraping the pavement of the playground, blacktop and concrete, the fragments of woodchips. How he pushed me to the ground. How a splinter capsized for weeks in the palm of my hand. How my fingers worried the raised scar and how a scar is nothing but memory, how a memory spiders and splits through the roots of a body, how it breaks through membrane like concrete, how it tells you always that you are nothing.
How I know you saw me: fifteen. The door of my bedroom cracked.
How my mouth moved against his body and how he leaned back into the sheets, hands behind his head. Paper lanterns. Plum-scented candle. Glowing stars on the ceiling, my knees seared into the carpet. How when I stopped too soon his hands moved from the bed to my mouth and how my jaw cracked and my face whipped and in a flash I saw you, moving away from the door.
How I wanted. How I wish.
That you never saw me, never sunk to your knees.
That you took another tunnel. That your lungs remained gills.
That I never lit a match.

You cover your tracks, a trail I know well.
Where a tunnel might have led, where we fell instead.
You cover your tracks but I know the flinching, a tensing of abdominals that await a blow. How your shoulders tighten. How your gaze drops, how your frame grows smaller when he speaks. How the tether between you is a fulcrum, a scale always tipped away from your light.
But sister, know this: I see you. Your light mine. I will always see you.
I will see you when someone else long forgot what light you shed, after his hands have moved over you and away from you, after you believe that light can be kept.

Sister, you will tell yourself things.
You will tell yourself phantoms and nightmares and voices.
You will tell yourself anything in place of what hollows out your gut. You will tell yourself nothing. Imagination. Delicate as porcelain.
You will tell yourself stupid when he tells you water is solid and moss is hard. When he hovers over you. When he tells you be more forceful. Mold rings in the shower, scummed dishes in the sink. A layer of dust on the coffee table. He will eye you with teeth and he will never say the word and you will call yourself incompetent anyway when there is nothing left but to feel it.
You will tell him sorry when he screams across the cabin of the car, directions he can’t hear above the din of the steering wheel spinning. You will let the silence his voice left fill the car’s empty space and you will look out the passenger-side window, your breath ghosting the glass. You will tell yourself nothing. This is nothing. No jaw. No cracked bone. You will tell yourself fine. You will tell yourself I’m okay I’m fine I could’ve been clearer I was wrong. You will watch the power lines slice the sky, the engine humming and your heart screaming inside of yourself, wild-tongued and razed.

A tunnel, what a world should have meant to us.
A world soft, rabbit soft, the furred catkins of willows. The same quiet of hands, the featherweight of lashes, of skin and breath and his bones. A lure and a line, some other tunnel. A tumbling down a well.

Sister, what did you love?
What was it that made you so brave? A word you never heard, falling through a passageway, a flame sputtering out. But this I know: you were fearless. You were wide-eyed and reckless with want.
What set you ablaze? What hazed sunset? Which first snowfall, which Halloween costume? Which pages of what books you threw yourself to the floor with, every Saturday we came home from the library? What premonitions, what ghosts, what Ouija boards hidden beneath your bed? Which hippopotamus at the zoo, which tawny frogmouth, which bucket of tadpoles you pulled from the neighborhood lake? What spiderweb glinting in sunlight, the one latticing the bushes behind our house, the one I caught you watching for three days straight and writing in your diary where and how an orbweaver moves?
You were a force. Wind through rooms. You were mud-soaked jeans and you were splashing through creeks. You were lightning bugs and mason jars and the pound of your boots against hardwood floor, your stereo loud, your fists in the air, sweat wisping the gleam of your hairline. You were streaked star and whiskey burn and the pulsing of jellyfish through an aquarium’s moonglow, your hands to the glass. You were a constellation, sea-legs, your once-gills pulling in air.
You were a flame. A spark, before I ever threw the match.
If you hear me, sister, I’ll scream it.
I’ll scream what I wish I’d said and you’d seen.
I’ll tell you that a hand is not touch, that a word is not skin. That water is not ice and that peat moss is soft, the softest you know. I’ll tell you breath. Breathe in. Let your lungs fill with sky and not the sea your gills imagined, flailing and drowning on land.

Sister, I tried.
We both wanted. We wanted so much of everything.
You were a surge through the flood, a light down a tunnel. I imagine you coiled still in soft pink, in the fluid of a fireless well. Not fighting back but out, your once-tiny fists, your palms, your breath breaching a sea, air that at last your lungs can hold.

Valente_Author_PhotoAnne Valente is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014), and the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics (Origami Zoo Press, 2013). Her fiction appears in Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review and The Journal, among others, and her non-fiction is forthcoming in The Believer. She can be found online at www.annevalente.com