eScapegoat 10

eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting daily during Holy Week (apologies for my late start this week).

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

…he is to lay his hands upon the scapegoat, symbolically laying the sins of the people upon it. He then sends the scapegoat away into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the people with it.[i]

***

I couldn’t live in a world where I could believe Sheila would betray me.

I would not believe she had.

I was going insane trying to disbelieve it.

I imagined her apologizing for what she had done or what she’d failed to do; I thought I could keep my sanity if only she would own her actions. If that happened, these tormenting thoughts could, at last, end. But day after day went by with no word from her. It was as if our friendship happened in a bubble and when that bubble burst, the friendship no longer existed, at least not for her.

I realized I didn’t want to live: even more, that I hadn’t wanted to live most of my life. I begged God to kill me. I wanted to kill myself, but I’d embarrassed my family enough. At night I prayed to die in my sleep; I awoke each morning discouraged to discover breath in my body. I stopped painting, stopped eating, stopped imagining Magic Land. Still I lived, still I endured every unendurable moment. My family no longer even feigned interest in my welfare, exerting no effort make me eat or sleep. And still I lived on.

 

When it became clear God would not let me die, I realized I hated Sheila. I hated myself, too, for being fool enough to believe she valued me. Fool enough to believe myself valuable. Sheila would never apologize; I knew that now. I didn’t matter enough to be stood by. Shadows can take only the form given them by substance. In my family’s world, in Sheila’s world, I had no substance of my own. Days went by and weeks as I existed in the sterility of my family.

Weeks turned into months; I ceased going to church. I imagined everyone sighing in relief at my absence. Especially my family; they had grown smaller, tighter. They’d closed ranks: reformed themselves with me outside the door. Wilda’s place of seniority was secured. My shadow hardly darkened our family’s consciousness anymore.

I made plans to simplify their lives. My plans grew solid at the mailbox; one evening at dinner, when a lull formed in the conversation, I spoke.

Everyone jumped; I rarely spoke these days and it seemed in poor taste to put myself forward. I kept it short: “I am going to East Texas College and majoring in art. I’ve been given a full scholarship. I start next month.”

***

The goat that was to be sent into the wilderness was designated by a black mark on the head, the other one on the neck.[ii]

***

Thanks to my job at the hobby shop, I’d bought myself a car: a used Pinto with more miles on it than my parents’ ancient station wagon, and a stain in the back seat I tried not to think about. I had it loaded: Mother had bought the necessities: towels, sheets, flashlight, crackers and Velveeta cheese for snacking. The three of them stood in an awkward semi-circle at my car’s door. Then Mother lurched forward and gave me a hug, the others followed suit, laying cold hands on my back, doing their familial duty.

I could feel their relief as I closed myself into my car and cranked the engine. Then, astonished, I felt myself relieved as well. I was alone in the truth of myself. In my family’s world, they spoke of their faith as the peace that passes understanding. For me, it’s been more the pain that does.

***

He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.[iii]

[i] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Gen. Ed. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Baker Academic Grand Rapids, MI 2005, p. 449.

[ii] Orr, James, Gen. Ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI 1955,   p. 344.

[iii] Lev. 16:21a NRSV.

eScapegoat 8

eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting daily during Holy Week (apologies for my late start this week).

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

“John McKenzie is on the deacon ballet for our congregation. John certainly has served us well. He drives the bus for our children’s church and he rarely misses Tuesday night visitation. So I can understand why members of this congregation would wish to nominate him for deacon. We have a difficulty here, however, that John and I have discussed at length and prayed over many times. Let me begin by citing the biblical mandate for our concern.”

Brother Jake lifted his black leather Bible—the leather cover draped itself over Brother Jake’s hand—and flipped toward the back. “Beloved, we find the passage in the book of 1 Timothy: one of Paul’s letters to his son in the ministry. If I could have a son in the ministry, I could do no better than John McKenzie. In Chapter 3 we read: ‘Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.’ Now the crux of our difficulty lies in verses four and five: ‘He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)’

John has sought repeatedly to involve his wife in our congregation, but he has been unsuccessful. John, you asked to speak to this matter, correct?”

“Yes, pastor.” John stood and faced the congregation, his face convulsing with repressed emotion. He stood for a moment, grappling with strong feelings, trying to bring himself under control.

“Thank you to everyone who wanted to vote me in as a deacon. I am…I am honored. But a deacon is to have management of his household and I have failed in this. My wife refuses to leave her church and join us here. I cannot convince her. I don’t deserve to be a deacon, but I will continue to serve as I can, if you will allow me.” He barely got out the final words; he sat down in a rush, resting his head in his hands. His shoulders heaved—up down, up down, pushing his emotions inside.

“Thank you, John. We are honored by your continued service,” said Bro. Jake, reclaiming the front. “That took great courage. Now, I propose someone make a motion in keeping with this biblical mandate: an bylaw stating that only men whose wives join this congregation and whose children regularly attend our functions may be considered for the role of deacon. Then fine men like John won’t be put through trials such as this one. Who among us, after all, can say we live totally in keeping with biblical command?”

Heads bowed, then nodded solemnly.

A deep voice from the back pronounced, “So moved,” and another, in rapid response, “I second.”

“Thank you, brothers. Let’s put feet to our convictions. All in favor, stand!” declared the pastor.

I could not stand; my legs wouldn’t allow me. All around the sanctuary, feet slid together, books were set aside, skirts smoothed. Knees straightened. I looked across row upon row of empty pews. With chins thrust forward, eyes bright, deep breaths taken, everyone stood, proud to be counted. Everyone, everywhere in my family’s world had taken to their feet. Except me.

I felt my father do a double take at me, felt his eyes on my downcast head, felt shock reach his brain. I needed to stand for my family, with my family. That was reason enough. I needed to spare them the difficulty of me. I must stand. Wilda, standing on the other side of Mother, bent toward me, motioning me with determined hand to rise. At the movement, I lifted my eyes and caught the pastor’s gaze—he reacted a split second behind my family, having just caught sight of me.

“Everyone in favor please stand,” he declared in an effort to clarify for the slow girl. Then he looked at me, bobbed his head up as if indicating the direction my body needed to take. I think it may have been the first time he ever really saw me.

I met his gaze, held it in an unspoken apology for the inconvenience, and tried to rise.

“No!” a shout declared. Had someone spoken? No, I alone heard the voice. “No! You can’t. You know it!”

What power was this, dictating the actions of my body? What had gotten into me? Then I knew. I had spoken. My self.

***

It took an eternity of seconds for my action (or lack of action) to communicate itself around the sanctuary. Heads turned as if I were a magnet and they metal shavings. As whispers hissed, I felt the burning of my family’s shame.

“The motion carries,” the pastor was saying, “with… almost unanimous support. Thank you, everyone. Now let’s be seated and vote on the remaining deacon candidates.”

I sat in the pew between my parents just like I’d sat as far back as I could recall, but I was not in the midst of anyone. Bro. Jake called names, there were seconds and discussions and votes. I raised my hand when other people did and lowered it on cue. It didn’t matter anymore. For one instant—the moment in which I did not stand—I was seen. I mattered terribly then..

“Let’s stand and close in prayer.”

This time I managed to stand. As one of the deacons, known for his marathon praying, droned on, I searched the room for Sheila’s fair head. I caught sight of it in the center section, a few rows ahead of us. She was easy to find because, instead of bowing her head, she looked straight ahead, her gaze open and hunted. I could feel her confusion across the room. Sheila, I felt sure, wished she could have joined me, could have summoned the will, but she was young and it was too hard for her. I forgave her in an instant and felt Mrs. McKenzie would have, too.

She must have felt my gaze, because she turned toward me. Then it happened: the scene that replays on the screen of my brain and leaves me cringing. Her eyes went cold, her face hardened into a replica of her mother’s, she breathed out fiercely as if expelling me from her system, and then she took her mother’s hand and turned her back to me.

“Amen.”

Congregants surged forward pretending to stop by our pew for a visit, but actually offering my parents

their condolences.

 

“What’s going on with your youngest?”

“The teen years are such a trying time…”

“With more life experience she’ll come to realize…”

 

Next, forced smiles and warm greetings descended on my bowed head, as people did their Christian duty on me. Sitting there, I could feel Wilda’s wrath, Mother’s embarrassment, Father’s anxiety: he wanted to get me out of there, to get himself out of there.

A familiar voice sounded above me. “Just checking in to see how the Schaefer family is doing this evening. How are you, Bro. William?”

“Just fine, Bro. Jake,” I heard my father’s respond.

“You, Sister Schaefer?”

“I am well, thank you,” replied my mother.

“Wilda?” I could hear the smile in his voice as his lips formed her name.

“I am quite well, Bro. Jake. Thank you for asking.” Wilda’s voice shook with barely repressed anger.

A pause. “W…Wanda?”

Eyes on my shoes, I sat silent, my toes squirming. Then my father’s voice, stern and reproving above me, “Wanda, Bro. Jake asked you a question.”

“Fine,” I told the floor. Then almost, but not quite, involuntarily: “She gets to choose.”

“What? Excuse me?” Bro. Jake sounded startled, rattled.

I met his eyes, watched them slide from my face, then I swallowed and said in a trembling voice: “Mrs. McKenzie. She gets to choose.”

The pastor stood, digesting this. Then he turned to lay a comforting hand on Father’s shoulder: “She’s young, William. With time…” With a nod and a smile, the pastor turned away.

To the others grouped around us, Father murmured something about having work to do at home, then moved us into the aisle. Eyes turned on me; whispers pierced my back. I could feel them; I could taste them.

***

In the car, Wilda exploded: “What were you thinking, Wanda? You embarrassed all of us!”

“Be still, Wilda,” said my Mother, for once speaking successfully. All conversation ceased. I knew when we got home, there’d be an inquest; Mother and Father would demand that I explain myself, and I couldn’t be silent before them. I was so churned up I knew my response would come as a flood of tears and a rush of passionate words. I was sick with revulsion at myself and, at the same time, I knew I’d make the same choice again, if given another opportunity.

We trudged into the house; my cheeks burned with shame. Father closed the front door and said, “Wanda, go to your room.” Wilda started to join me, but he said, “Not you, Wilda. In here.” I trod up the stairs, and then stopped at our bedroom door. Quietly, I retraced my steps and looked down on my family below. Father’s head ushered Mother’s and Wilda’s heads into the den, his hand pressed the door firmly closed. I sat at the top of the stairs, gazing at the block of wood separating me from my family. I was the topic of a secret discussion. I was a problem to be solved.

 

What transpired behind that door I never knew. No one spoke to me that night—about anything. I never had to defend my choice, because no one in my family ever spoke of it before me again. I guess they decided that was the Christian thing to do. But if I felt like a burden before, I had clearly become one now.

eScapegoat 7

Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week (apologies for my late start this week).

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

I let two students present before raising my hand. I thought if I didn’t get it over with, I’d scream or vomit or maybe both. I’d planned out and practiced my first sentence: “People of Ireland take care choosing names for their children.” My hands shook as I set the posters on the chalk rail. I heard some say “Whoa!” in an awed tone. I gathered my breath and made my way through my opening sentence, then turned my attention to the poster, read through the names, and explained the illustrations I’d done for each one. The room fell silent as I spoke; I felt the other students’ attention on my work and found myself relaxing and even enjoying their regard. At last (though it was probably four minutes, max) I sat down, surrounded by applause and smiles. The teacher asked if she could keep the posters to show her other classes. I nodded yes.

“Creative,” she said, looking at the posters and nodding. “Unique and well executed.”

After that, I was able to attend to the other students’ presentations. I saw lots of white, blue-lined index cards, heard sentence after sentence initiated with “Ummmmm…” and, not surprisingly, heard the names Joshua, David, Benjamin, Rachel, Mary, and Esther defined time and time again. One name, Azazel, caught my attention, partly because I liked the sound of it (it sounded like lightning looks), and partly because it meant a demon of the desert. I imagined fiery eyes peering out from under a scorched stone, then shivered with delightful horror. I thought I would paint Azazel someday.

***

In a small-town high school, word—any word about just about anything—spreads fast. A student in my class told her little sister about my project, and it was soon known that I painted. The other students, noticing me for the first time, seemed to feel I was, myself, some kind of rare art piece: something to be placed under glass and examined from all sides, while remembering to keep your hands clasped behind your back and not to get too close. Painters were a rarity in my family’s town. No one knew quite what to do with me.

***

“You paint?”

“Yeah.” I hesitated before owning it. I didn’t know where the admission would lead.

“I want to see.”

“Oh, they’re not that good. I’m still working on them some.”

“Please. I want to see.”

I tingled with some composite emotion borne of terror and hope. “Okay. They’re in my room.”

We mounted the stairs and Sheila thumped onto my bed, grabbing the pillow and hugging it close. She kicked off her sandals and folded her legs under her. I fished the box from the back of the closet and tenderly lifted the stack of paintings, now warped with water and paint. I silently apologized to the works for any misunderstandings or hurtful words they might be forced to endure. “We’ll be all right,” I soundlessly assured them.

In neat rows, as I imagined they would hang in a gallery, I laid the paintings on the floor at the foot of the bed. Sheila flopped over onto her stomach and surveyed the process. When I finished, she lay there silent, staring. I didn’t know where to look—at the paintings? At Sheila? Out the window? I could hear blood pulsing in my ears like an ocean trapped in a seashell. Would she never speak?

“Wow! These are wonderful, Wanda. I could never do this! Where do you get your ideas?” She stared again and said quietly, “I could never think of these things.”

“I don’t know. It just comes. Thank you.”

“Yeah. I mean it. Really. These are more than just beautiful. I could never paint trees like that.”

“Sure you could. Want to learn?”

Her eyes widened. She sat up and pushed her pale hair behind her ear. “Really? You could teach me?”

“Sure! We can start now.”

I’d never had anyone want me to teach them what I so loved to do. Euphoric, I pulled my paint box from under my bed and searched out two pads of watercolor paper.

“Let’s paint outside so we can look at some trees.”

Her large blue eyes shone with anticipation. “Okay!” she bounded off the bed and grabbed the paper. “Let’s go!”

***

I loved Sheila as I’d wanted to love my sister, and Sheila responded to my love as my sister would never allow herself to do. The guarded expression Sheila wore around her mother vanished, and the brightness of her soul shone on her face. I knew her mother was ashamed of Sheila’s size, so when Sheila and I were together, I stayed far from the subject. Instead, we spent hours in the library, we flew kites that dipped and danced on the winds of March, and, in every season, we painted. With me, Sheila allowed herself to open up, and I tried to be worthy of her trust. She called me “Big Sister,” and, for the first time, I felt the word “sister” might mean something good. She knew I loved her as she was. I knew we’d always be important to one another. I didn’t know then that comfort is an all too common, if unrecognized, addiction.

***

“Do you know Mrs. McKenzie?”

“The seventh-grade English teacher?”

Sheila nodded, gazing at the ground.

“Sure. I like her. She introduced me to Sherlock Holmes. A hard grader, but fair.”

“Yeah…” Sheila separated out a strand of her almost white hair and inspected it for split ends. “I like her, too. It’s just…”

“What?”

“Well, I overheard this argument—her and her husband. It’s weird thinking about teachers having problems…”

The turn of conversation dimmed the joy of our reading time; I wished Sheila would either say what she wanted to say or just drop it. She pushed her hair behind her ear and sat up with her hands in her lap as if she were on one of those lawyer shows as a witness. “Okay. So Mr. Grosman asked me to make photocopies of this handout, ’cause we were short eight for the class. He told me to make the copies in the office—he chose me over Beverly, who had her hand up to volunteer—and come right straight back to class. So I was hurrying and the paper jammed in the copier. I got really scared I had ruined it, and I didn’t want to tell Mr. Grosman, ’cause he gets mad kind of easy and ’cause Beverly would know about it, so I went to see if someone in the office could help me. The teacher’s lounge door was open a little, so I pushed on it. It smells like cigarettes in there, did you know?”

I nodded, hoping she’d move on along with her story.

“Mrs. McKenzie was standing there, talking to her husband. I thought they’d tell me I needed to leave because I was right there, you know? But they never even saw me. I knew it was Mr. McKenzie, because I’d seen him at our basketball games with Mrs. McKenzie. He goes to our church, right?

“Who?”

“Mr. McKenzie. John McKenzie.”

“Yeah.” Strangely, I hadn’t put John McKenzie and Mrs. McKenzie together as a couple, I guess because I’d never seen them together.

“Anyway, his eyes were really…pleading, and she—she had tears in hers. She said something like, “I just can’t, John,’ and he said something about Bro. Jake. Then she just shook her head. I backed out of the lounge and I don’t think they ever saw me. When I got back to the copier, Mrs. Teague was working on it. She said it happens all the time and it wasn’t my fault. Then she helped me make copies and I ran back to class. When I saw Mrs. McKenzie the next day, she was just like usual, but I kept thinking of her with tears in her eyes. What could make her so sad? Do you think she’s getting divorced?”

In our community, divorce carried as much shame, if not more, than distributing birth-control pills. “What God has put together,” Bro. Jake proclaimed from the pulpit, “let no man put asunder.”

“I don’t know,” I replied, wanting to get back to reading. “Could be anything. Adults worry a lot about money. Maybe it’s that.”

“But Mr. McKenzie mentioned Bro. Jake.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen Mrs. McKenzie at church, so why would she care about Bro. Jake?”

Sheila shrugged and I forgot about the conversation. I didn’t think it had anything to do with me.

eScapegoat 2

Each week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting each Tuesday during Lent and one daily during Holy Week.

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

 

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

            Mother canned the peaches that grew, heavy with juice and fragrance, from three trees in our backyard. Each summer, I was handed a bushel basket and commissioned to fill it with plump, ripe fruit. I always had to tell my heart to slow its pace when I first placed a foot on the ladder that started on the ground beside me and ended somewhere up among the branches, leaves, and fruit. Stepping foot on the first rung, the transition between land and air always left me dizzy. But once I got a few rungs up among the gently curling leaves and the fragrant fruit, once I wrapped my fingers around a peach to test its ripeness—still hard and a little green or fuzzy soft and blushing orange and deep red—gave a gentle jerk, and heard the satisfying snap of stem, then laid the peach with its cousins in the basket, I left my fears in another world. These little friends, nestled among the embracing green of their own leaves, looked so wholesome and healthy, I knew everything was all right.

The kitchen would fill with steam and with the aroma of peaches and spice: Mother would ladle it all into Mason jars, her face moist and red from the steamer. I loved to load the cooled jars onto our pantry shelves. It seemed to me we had an infinity of gem-like peaches—some sliced, others whole—and, swimming with them in peach nectar, cinnamon sticks and little buds of clove. It smelled so good I sneaked a clove one time and, when I bit down on it, discovered it didn’t taste nearly as good as it smelled. A lick of cinnamon stick yielded a similar result. Some things, it seems, aren’t to be taken full strength.

But my favorite peach-time past time happened in the evening, when the temperature cooled just a bit and the sky turned a blue so deep it made my chest ache. Mother would hand Wilda and me each a leftover Mason jar. We’d haul out Father’s hammer and a nail and take turns pounding holes in the metal lid. We set the holey lid inside its screw top, grabbed the jars and went out looking for fireflies. Father called them lightning bugs, but that didn’t sound beautiful enough for such mysteries. Fireflies. That’s what they deserved to be called.

Darting and dodging between trees, I’d snag one after another in my jar, always telling them not to worry, I’d set them free in just a little while—I just wanted to look at them for a bit. Then I’d set the jar, filled with orbs of soft yellow light, on the picnic table, rest my chin in my hands, and be lost to wonder. The lights blinked on and off, gently moving around the inside of the glass. Their owners didn’t seem worried—they didn’t race around the bottom, trying desperately to scuttle up and over the sides like the spider I trapped one year. Fireflies just glowed inside the glass as they had done outside it. Like it really didn’t matter to them at all.

I’d stay there, chin in hands at the picnic table, trying to be really quiet so on one would think to make me go to bed, until someone finally did. Then I’d open the jar lid and watch the fireflies hover and then ascend, their lights at first concentrated above the jar, then dispersing into the sky like stars on wings.

***

The lower shelf of our home bookcase housed a Bible storybook: glossy cover, deep colors, simple lettering: Bible Storybook. I don’t know who purchased it. To my childhood mind, it had always existed as part of us: one of the furnishings of our existence. I loved the stories, especially once I was able to read them to myself, but, for me, the pictures held the most magic. Mostly deep blues and purples, they called to me from a distant, magic place and I longed to follow. I studied them with wonder, noting that a blob of color set beside blobs of another color created a brand new color, that lines and squiggles, themselves only odd shapes such as I could make, put together in some mysterious equation equaled a flower or a donkey leg or the tiles on a roof. I remember especially “The Escape to Egypt”: under a deep blue sky garnished in cold stars Mary, on donkey back, clutched her babe, as Joseph, striding with determined purpose, held the reins. I felt such urgency looking at that picture, felt the terror in the mother’s heart, the resolve in the father’s. I lost and found myself, looking at that book.

***

I made what Mother called “mud pies,” except mine were more “mud pictures.” When I grew weary of forming rounds out of our backyard mud, I would smear a layer of it on our back porch and scratch shapes into it with sticks, rocks, and my fingernails. I wished for color, but mud didn’t come with much pigment range, so I contented myself with what I had. I grew accomplished with making do.

***

eScapegoat

escapegoatEach week of Lent, I will post a section of my book, eScapegoat. Like the season of Lent, the writing and the story are lean, troubling, ascetical. eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season.

After today, Ash Wednesday, look for posts each Tuesday of the Lenten season.

 

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands

From the beginning, I guess, Wilda and I existed separate. We ate the same food, shared the same bedroom furnished with twin beds whose burdened springs squeaked each time one of us turned over, went to the same schools, and, for a season, rode in the same backseat, sticking our tongues out at one another when we thought our parents weren’t looking. Yet I never dwelled in Wilda’s universe; my world was so detached from hers that she could not have imagined it, even had she cared enough to try.

At her birth, my parents named my older sister Wilda. When I came along, I was named Wanda. Two names starting with W and ending with A, three letters between. I always felt my name was a shadow of my sister’s, that I was more a shadow than a person in my own right. And shadows know their place.

***

I even looked like the stuff of shadows. Wilda was golden, literally, with burnished curls the strong color of corn and open eyes flecked blue, green, and brown. Wilda possessed honest eyes: eyes that drew you in. I, on the other hand, wore my straggly hair tied back in a ponytail that, according to my school photos, usually hung lank and off-kilter down my back. My eyes, gray almost to the point of iridescence, discomforted people. I kept my head down, because when I raised my eyes to others, they would meet my gaze, then their eyes would widen and slide away from my face. I chose to be the first to do the ignoring.

***

I saw a lot of my sister’s back. She claimed the seat behind and to the right of the driver’s seat, so Father could easily see her in the rearview mirror as he checked traffic. We pestered each other too much when we sat side by side—Mother’s words—so by the time I was five, I was relegated to the back-facing seat in the station wagon. If I swiveled around and craned my neck, I could see one of Wilda’s pigtails hanging down her back and the wispy strands of hair at the base of her neck. Craning hurt my neck, though, so I usually just stared out the back window, imagining the road that lay behind us as a magic path to a magic place only I knew.

At meals, Father sat at the head of our oaken table, Mother at the foot, and Wilda and I on either side. Wilda would angle her chair toward Father and inch it up by degrees until I was mostly behind her. Mother protested a few times, but Wilda could be obstinate. Mother gave up.

I ate my meals feeling alone at a table for four, wanting all the while to be really alone. During meals, Wilda was always full of stories: entertaining Mother and Father, holding them in her power as best she could. If the conversation came my way, she yanked it back and punished me later with a pull of hair or a shove in the back. As we grew older, she finessed her punishments with remarks designed to demean me in front of her friends or to discredit me in front of adults. But never in front of Mother or Father. Wilda was a survivor; she knew how to play the game.

I loved her: couldn’t help myself. Each time she abused me, I stepped right up and asked her do it again. And for that she despised me. I knew instinctively that she had always despised me. I could imagine no other reality than the one in which I loved my despiser. It never occurred to me that she could change the way she felt about me or that I deserved anything other than to be despised by her and largely ignored by both parents. I never wondered why I should be hated. I was just someone to be hated and the most loving thing I could do was to make myself scarce, to remove as much irritation as possible from before Wilda’s eyes.

I expressed my love by keeping out of Wilda’s way so as not to raise her ire too much, so as not to distress her. And my parents wore such weary expressions any time I approached them, that I kept most things to myself. I remained in the shadows and kept out of the way. I, too, was a survivor, if a barely visible one.

***

I do recall one time, though, when my heart overtook me. Wilda had been particularly abusive that day, so much so that Father noticed and spoke to her in his cool tone. In her flashing eye I saw the truth—his reproof made her hate me all the more. I ran to her, wrapping my arms around her waist.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” I wailed.

Her body tensed. She raised her arms over her head so as to reduce body contact with me. As my father watched with sad eyes, I stood there, alone, holding onto her, knowing myself to be repulsive. Then my heart burst open. Releasing her, I fled in tears to my bed.

“Wilda!” I heard Father reproach, his cool voice even chillier. She would hate me even more now.