last blood

It was my sister who drew last blood.

Perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps it was not. The blade was in her hand and she had both a smile on her lips and a shocked look in her eyes. There was a lightness to her I had never seen in my life.

+++

Backtrack: we were born together, my sister and I. Our mother said we had been born holding hands. Our father said that was what killed our mother. In our village, we were known as the Pale Ones, because we had been born at the cusp of dawn. That is supposed to be good luck, but my sister was born dead, the birthing-cord wrapped tightly around her neck and her hand in mine, and it took the nurse long minutes of coaxing and prodding before she took her first breath in this strange world of the living. I don’t remember this, of course. I was fine.

I don’t remember our mother, either, though I have seen photos of her around the house, tucked in places where they are both in plain sight and easily overlooked. She has the same eyes I see when I look in the mirror and the same fine pale hair that my sister ties into braids every evening. Father didn’t like to speak of her very often. He married another woman when we were six, who had dark hair and a red mouth and looked nothing like my sister or like me. She brought no children of her own, but she tried to act like a mother in her own fashion: she sang songs when my sister fussed; she brushed my hair when I fell and left it tangled. She told us the things our father said about our mother.

The day we turned ten, my sister and I, I drew the first blood.

We had new dresses, the two of us, white and red. We were very pretty; everyone said so. But more people looked at my sister, even though we had the very same face, and more of them gave their smiles to her, pale as a ghost where I burned pink. The grocer gave us candy for our birthday, but he gave an extra piece to her with a wink that he thought I did not see. My sister accepted it with a close-lipped smile, and then she looked at me and very deliberately put the second piece of candy away into the pocket of her dress. After we left the store, and we were outside in the hot dusty street, I tried to stick my hand into her pocket and take the candy. She struck me then, hard across the mouth, but I did not bleed. I curled my fingers into her thin fine hair and pulled until it came away in my hand, trailing red, and then there were adults yelling as they pulled us apart. I let go of her hair, but there were red sticky stains on my hand, on her face, on our dresses. Her eyes followed me the whole time.

Of course I was punished. My father screamed and my stepmother looked pale and unhappy and I was sent to bed without supper. I crept to the edge of our bedroom and listened to the sound of people singing well-wishes for my sister and of them eating cake.

Later that night, after the lights were out and our father and our stepmother were asleep, she came and stood beside me. When I rolled over and looked at her, she smiled at me once, and then retreated to her own bed.

+++

Move forward: after that, we alternated with blood. When we were twelve my sister, in a temper, grabbed a rock and threw it at me; it struck me in the same spot where, on her own head, there was a scar from the missing hair. I knelt as she stood over me and we both stared at the way my blood dripped into a little pool on the gravel. At fifteen a boy gave her roses and I struck her cheek with one of the thorny stems. At twenty she struck me across the mouth and that time my lip caught on my teeth and filled my mouth with the taste of metal.

Then we turned twenty-five. From what our stepmother told us, that was the age our own mother had been when she died. I worked at the grocer’s and my sister drifted into the arms of the mayor’s son, richer than half the families in our small village put together. On our birthday she came to me and took my hands and placed them upon her belly and she said, strike me here.

I looked into her eyes and I saw something nearly like panic there. Her lips were bitten and red through no fault of mine. Her belly was flat and cool under my palm.

Strike me here, she said again, the blood is yours now. Hurry. Here. And she took my hands then and pressed them together into a double fist.

This won’t be just my blood, I said. She leaned in and put her lips against my cheek and let go of my hands to put her own onto my shoulders. We no longer looked quite so alike: my work had left me broad and strong, while she was still soft and fluttering as we had been together as children. Looking at her was sometimes like looking back through time. Her mouth was cold, but it moved with warm breath and whispered to me, my name and please.

So I clasped my hands together into that double fist and I drove it into her belly. Though she dug her fingers into my shoulders (and so drew blood again, and to this day I am not sure if that counts in our strange tally), she did not cry out. When I asked her, Again? she nodded and I did as she asked, because after all: she was my sister. She held me and wept into my neck and I struck her a third time for good measure, and together we breathed loud and rough and waited until that feeling passed. Then she kissed my cheek and did not say thank-you as she left.

+++

Further forward still: our father died last week. The funeral was today. My sister came with her husband, both of them dressed from head to toe in black. The contrast made her look more like a ghost than ever, her mouth curved into a pale pink bow beneath the cover of her veil. She did not look at me, nor did she say anything to me; when the service was over and she had thrown her handful of earth over his coffin, she put her hand on her husband’s arm and they walked away. I wanted to call her name, or at least reach out to her, but instead I put my own hands in my pockets and let her go.

Which leads to this morning, when I was at our old house, sorting through the various sundry of our father’s life, when there was a knock on the door. My sister opened it without waiting for me to answer. She was still dressed all in black, but she had removed her veil. Her eyes were bright, but they were not clear. She said my name and she put her hands on her thin neck and she said to me, this is where you struck me first. I know that now. Then she came to my side and took my hand in her cold one and she said, Now I know. Now I see.

And then she struck me, so fast I only saw the flutter of her sleeve afterwards, followed by a hot slice of pain across my face. My cheek was wet. The blade was in my sister’s hand. There was a smile on her lips and shock in her eyes. She opened her fingers so that the razor clattered to the floor; it bounced once. And she said, I love you, and she said, I’m going outside now, and she said, Good night.

She closed the door behind herself and that was the last I saw of her.

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