“Please don’t misunderstand me.” She is barefoot and wearing a robe, all soft and white.
This is in the nineties when we live in the house on Taney Avenue, about twenty-five miles from the edge of Harrisburg. She names herself Zephyr and our parents amiably allow it, granting her this little teenage rebellion. I want to change my name too, but I can’t think of anything so I keep it for now.
“Please don’t misunderstand me,” she says. She is seventeen and when she laughs it comes out in a rush like wind. “I’m not crazy.”
Earlier that day, Marla throws a stick at my bedroom window and when I look down, she whispers-screams, “Avette, your sister has lost her mind.”
I want to say, “What else is new,” but don’t, instead climb down clutching the rain gutter. This is all just for show. On the way down, I spot my parents through the kitchen window and they both give me a wave. My mom motions for me to zip my sweater.
We have the type of parents who allow us to make our own bedtimes and to do our chores on whatever time frame we see fit and to set our own punishments when we get out of line, and perhaps this is why my sister and I end up the way we do, although our parents also taught us to take responsibility for our own actions, so perhaps not.
Once I reach the ground, Marla hugs me tight, her body shaking. We are not like this, Marla and I. I try to think of a way to disentangle myself. Eventually, I pretend I’m having a sneezing attack, and she releases me.
“What’s happened?” I ask when I’m freed. “I thought she was with you?”
My sister Zephyr often disappears, from home, from school, from my life, and then pops back up again with a new haircut, or a nose ring, or a venereal disease as she does later when she is twenty-seven and needs me to take off work and drive her to the clinic. She likes to try out different Zephyrs and I love to watch and wait for her to turn and ask me which one I like the best.
Marla sniffles. I notice then that her nose is quite large. “She was but then she just kinda lost it, and went running out, talking about fixing things. You know how my parents are moving us to Cleveland tomorrow. I think she went over to Flanders Park, over by the hiking trail?”
I sigh, roll my eyes, but inside my heart is a hammer. Zephyr’s world is like mine but only louder. I have to take advantage when I get invited in. “OK, let’s go find her,” I say.
Marla’s got her bike there. It still has purple and white streamers coming down from the handle bars even though she is seventeen. I am embarrassed for her, and then for myself as I hop on the back and we glide down the street. I hope I don’t see anyone from school, even though I remember nobody cares so it’s not a big deal. I’m too quiet at school, it freaks people out. The only kids I hang out with are the ones who read fantasy novels during lunch. And Zephyr, of course. But even though I know no one would care, I’m embarrassed anyway because I’m riding on this silly bike with a girl who is wiping tears and snot from her face, and it’s really just the principle of the thing, I guess.
When I am seven, Zephyr is ten, and she is not Zephyr but another name that I am not allowed to say anymore. She shaves both my eyebrows with our mother’s Lady Bic. She does mine as an experiment to see how they look before she does her own. The Powerpuff Girls don’t have eyebrows. It doesn’t occur to her that number one, their eyebrows are probably just covered up by their bangs, and number two, they are cartoons. My mother explains this to her right after Zephyr finishes with me.
She likes to try out different Zephyrs and I love to watch and wait for her to turn and ask me which one I like the best. They try to draw some eyebrows with markers, but it ends up looking worse. In the end, I go around looking like some kind of alien and at school I freak the other kids out a little. Zephyr starts calling me E.T., but whenever she says it she puts an arm around my shoulder and gives me a squeeze so I don’t mind as much as I should. Still, it takes months for my eyebrows to grow back. You don’t realize how much eyebrows do until you don’t have them anymore. It is worse when it rains. I can’t keep the water from my eyes.
This is not the last time my sister uses me like I am a toy. She dresses me like John Oates to go with her Daryl Hall costume. I hate the mustache she tapes on my upper lip; it itches the bottom of my nose and sneaks into my nostrils whenever I inhale, but I stick with it because she would look ridiculous in her blonde wig without me. I should be more bothered when she uses me how she likes, but I can’t ever help but feel like I am helping her.
On the bike, I look down and see Marla’s got greasy hair. I wonder if Marla even knows. Maybe it’s a fashion statement, shows she’s committed fully to that grunge look, like Kurt Cobain and his hair that’s been dipped in sweat. It would be almost too sad, I think, for Marla to be walking around all day with hair like that and not even realize it. I see she’s got one earring that’s a white cross and one that’s a gold moon. They’re cool, I think, against my better judgment. I wonder if Zephyr’s seen them, though of course she has.
I know Marla’s parents don’t like my sister and they will not be the last ones to feel like that. I’m not surprised. She’s a hard one to like, honestly. She wears these combat boots that we found in my grandfather’s attic after he died. They are two sizes too big, so there’s this loud clomp whenever she puts her foot down and then an accompanying drag when she picks her foot back up. You can always hear her coming from a mile away. She lives her life noisily and doesn’t know any different. When I move into my first apartment after graduating from college, Zephyr crashes at my place for two months and while I am away at work, she leaves a burning grilled cheese sandwich on the stove and doesn’t pay much attention when the fire alarm goes off. “I had my music on,” she tells me, “and you won’t believe how well a fire alarm goes with the beat. It sounded seamless.” The wall next to the stove needs to be redone and the landlord is ready to sue, and even after Zephyr talks him off the ledge by offering some cocaine she just has lying around, I still decide to move out a few months later when my lease is up.
Marla and I ride down the street, then round the corner. I’m impressed with how fast Marla is going, despite having both our weight on the bike. It is the very launch of fall, so when the cool breeze whips at our faces, it feels nice, not punishing. The leaves on the asphalt look like they’ve been painted from fire.
“Whose homeroom are you in this year?” Marla calls back to me.
I grip her shoulders tighter as we ride over a speed bump in the road. “Willoughby’s,” I reply. I don’t want to talk more about it. School is only two weeks in, but I have a feeling that eighth grade will be just as terrible as everyone promises. I ask Zephyr if she has any tips on how to survive middle school, and all she does is roll her eyes and tell me that in the grand scheme of human suffering, middle school ranks considerably lower than global warming and genocide in the Sudan. Zephyr should not write an advice column, I have come to realize.
I could have skipped to tenth but my parents think my social age isn’t quite that advanced, whatever that means. My locker is right by the English wing staircase, so people are always bumping into me on their way to class. In Phys. Ed. we’ve been doing an archery unit, and my arms are so weak that I can’t pull back the bow string. I get out of Home Ec., though, by saying I am so terrified of needles that the sight of them immediately causes me to vomit and faint, in no particular order. My mother even signs off on the note herself and I spend my third period on Tuesdays and Thursdays filling out crosswords in the nurse’s office. So I have that going for me, I guess.
“Cool,” Marla says and I grunt back. If I ask Marla about how to survive middle school, she will probably tell me just to lay low. I think she might have more concrete advice than Zephyr. I consider Marla’s greasy hair and have a feeling eighth grade was no picnic for her.
We reach Flanders Park and she slows to a stop. She walks the bike over to a bike rack and locks it up, although who would actually want to steal that silly thing, I don’t know. “She’s by the hiking trail?” I ask.
Marla shrugs. Her eyes are wide and too large. “I think so. She said something about needing to find virgin earth.”
“Of course she did,” I say, and stifle a chuckle. Marla looks really worried, but she doesn’t know Zephyr like I do. When I am eleven she refuses to talk to me for a week. I wrack my brain for reasons why she’s mad at me, I wonder what I’ve done wrong, if it is because I took the last ice cream sandwich in the freezer, but at the end of the week she tells me she just decided to take an oath of silence to see if she could do it. Zephyr says things, does things, but most of the time doesn’t actually mean anything by it. My mother calls her, not unkindly, “a well of false profundity.” At twelve, she leads an environmental protest at her middle school, but forgets to turn off the bathroom light at home. Even so, she protects me in her own way, like by making me smoke cigarettes when I am thirteen, until I learn how to do that cool trick of puffing out smoky little rings with my mouth, and by punching Tommy Enzo square in the nose at the bus stop when I am in fifth grade, the day after he calls me a whore for taking his seat on the bus, hitting him over and over till he starts to spurt blood all over his yellow polo shirt, till he begins to whimper like a hurt animal, till I have to hold Zephyr back myself while I let him wiggle free towards safety. She is like that.
We walk along the hiking trail, our eyes peeled for Zephyr. When she is eighteen she will have midnight-colored hair but now at seventeen she’s got this bleached blonde look so I hope it will be easy to spot her through the trees. I keep looking past the dark for the flash of light that is my sister. “So she ran away because you’re leaving?” I ask Marla.
When she turns thirty, Zephyr disappears for a little over a week. My parents say she’ll turn up, but I am concerned, and keep calling her cell phone until her voicemail is full. I go to her place but a neighbor tells me she doesn’t live there anymore, and when I peep through the windows, I see only the sun falling in through the glass, flooding with light the empty rooms where my sister used to be. When she finally returns, she laughs and shoves some poker chips in my cupped hands and tells me she went to Atlantic City for a break, just a little getaway is all she needed, and maybe she can stay with me for a while, but when I look down at the poker chips they are made of cardboard, like she got them at a dollar store or something, and when she tells me she is sorry she made me worry, I don’t believe her.
Whenever she runs, I can’t understand why. Marla shrugs, sighs deep. “She was over at my place and my parents wanted her out. They don’t know I’m here. I’m not allowed to talk to her anymore.” She pushes her hair behind her ear and I spot that gold moon glint in the sunlight. “They said they’ll rip up a letter if they find one in the mailbox.”
Early this summer I walk out to the back deck and they are there kissing on the steps. I am not surprised by it really, but rather by the way Zephyr looks at her afterwards, like she wants to swim inside her skin. I don’t understand because Marla seems so utterly ordinary.
At twelve, she leads an environmental protest at her middle school, but forgets to turn off the bathroom light at home. Even so, she protects me in her own way, like by making me smoke cigarettes when I am thirteen, until I learn how to do that cool trick of puffing out smoky little rings with my mouth…”I have never seen my sister’s eyes look that way, like they could chip in an instant. Usually they are like tiny boulders and I have to be careful when they roll my way to keep from going under.
I guess Marla’s parents want to move away so they can escape Zephyr, but they don’t know that you can never escape my sister. “I used to love them a lot more,” Marla says quietly. “Before.” Before Zephyr.
Finally we see my sister’s bobbing blonde head through the fall foliage. She is a few yards from the hiking trail, standing in a big expanse of dirt. When we get close, we make sure we don’t step on any sticks. There is something in both of us that doesn’t want to make any noise and scare her away.
Zephyr is wearing all white, this ivory-colored robe that makes her look young. I recognize it from my closet. When I am nineteen, she borrows my very first car, a Dodge Neon, to road trip to a Dave Matthews concert. She crashes it after one too many but doesn’t pay me back.
Out near the trees, her feet are bare and black from the earth. Her eyes are closed and she’s got her hands folded together like she’s praying, and I’m surprised. Never before have I seen her pray and I won’t see it again after this.
Her eyes are still closed when she turns to us and says, “Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not crazy.” Her voice rings in the surrounding stillness.
She says the same thing to me soon after that mysterious trip to Atlantic City. Only this time she is not standing in a mess of trees, but lying in a tangle of sheets at the hospital, her eyes a dry red, wild and wide.
I don’t say anything to her that time, but now I ask, “Zephyr, what are you doing?”
“Relax, guys,” she laughs. She is calm. “I know it’s silly, but it just felt right, coming here. You remember, Avette? The golem?”
I remember, but am surprised Zephyr does. There are times I don’t think she’s listening when in fact she’s picking up every word. The golem comes from our dad. He tells us stories sometimes from his mother, who dabbled in Kabbalah every now and again. “You mean the man of clay?”
“What man?” Marla asks.
I think back to what our father told us. “The golem, it’s this man you make out of the earth. You need to have a pure heart and you need to know some word to write on his forehead before he can come to life, and then he’ll be there.”
“To protect you,” my sister adds with a knowing smile.
“He’s just a myth, Zephyr,” I say. “Just from a story. He’s soulless, this Frankenstein thing.”
Marla steps closer to her. “Who is he coming to protect?”
There is a silence that is loud because it is Zephyr’s and she says it without saying it: Us.
I can’t understand. It is not that she wants to create a man out of clay, but rather that she wants to do it for someone like Marla. My sister, who at nine tries to teach herself German and only remembers key phrases, like “Where is the bathroom?” and “I have a headache.” Who draws a comic strip of a feminist superhero named Super Bitch who goes around throwing thunderbolts of enlightenment at every misogynist she sees. Who is the only person I tell after I pee my pants at Pammy Lytle’s house and throw my dirty underwear out her bedroom window where it lands in a tree. She hangs out with Marla nearly every day after school but sometimes I see her twirling her hair at Anthony Slimner at the bus stop. Sometimes she talks to Jennifer Ypsilantis on the phone at night and I overhear her say honey. Why the golem now? I’m not sure of this sister standing in front of me wearing white.
“You’re not making any sense,” I say.
When she is in the hospital for the first time, she holds up her hands to me and asks me if I see all the thousands of pixels in them, how those little boxes of light make up her body and cover her whole, but I don’t see a thing, just skin stitched over veins. I tell her she’s got to stop mixing her medication with coke.
Zephyr stomps one foot on the forest floor. “Avette, your negativity’s bringing me down,” she snaps. Her face is tight. “I know it’s stupid, it won’t work, but it just makes me feel better. You know what I mean?”
We don’t reply. It wouldn’t matter if we did. She tells us we can stay if we want but we are not allowed to help. Marla wrings her hands and leans against a tree, never taking her eyes off Zephyr. I crouch in the dirt, write our names on the ground with a leaf.
She begins and we are witnesses to it all. Grabbing clumps of dirt, sifting through till the sticks and rocks and leaves are thrown out, sprinkling drops of water from an Evian bottle she’s brought, she crafts a man out of mud, with eyes of earth, muscles made from mounds of soil. I wonder how she can stand it, she who’s never had the patience to finish a full game of Monopoly.
I think about my father’s stories. They never end well. “You can’t play God, Zephyr,” I say, but it isn’t true. She’s been playing God my whole life.
Zephyr doesn’t reply. She is busy sculpting the face, with its square chin and wide full nose. It looks a bit like Bruce Springsteen. She presses her thumbs sideways to make indents for the blank eyes.
“Z, let’s just talk for a second, okay?” Marla says. She is hugging herself like she wants to climb inside her own skin. Zephyr stands, shoots Marla a crushing glare meant to level her, and then turns back to her dirt.
When she is done he lies there flat on the ground and Zephyr towers over him holding a stick like a blade. She carves something onto his forehead. “What is it?” Marla asks, but Zephyr doesn’t answer. A secret word.
By this point, her hands are black with soil and her white robe is stained. She looks down at herself a moment and then takes the robe off. She is above him in her underthings, a matching Tweety Bird set that makes her look younger than she is. Her hip bones jut out sharply, she looks scrawnier than I’ve ever seen her. I could take an arm and splinter it like the stick that’s in her hand. I feel like her body will flutter away in the wind and I want to cover her with leaves to keep her warm, like I do that day when we are older at the hospital, tucking that soft white sheet up to her chin while she trembles underneath.
She stands over him and waits.
I feel like her body will flutter away in the wind and I want to cover her with leaves to keep her warm, like I do that day when we are older at the hospital, tucking that soft white sheet up to her chin while she trembles underneath.
Marla goes over, tries to hold her hand but she pushes her away. She doesn’t look at her, but down at him. Marla chokes back a sob. I wish I could tell her to wash her damn hair once in a while but I feel like that would just be embarrassing for everyone involved. She returns to her tree and slumps to the dirt, her head in her hands.
Later when she is in college, Zephyr buys a yellow lab pup on a whim and keeps him until she gets sick of him peeing on her rug. The pup goes to my parent’s house, where I am finishing up high school. I master staring down the dog right at the exact moment when he’s about to pee on the carpet, till he’s so uncomfortable that he learns to go outside in only two weeks. My parents don’t mind having him, but it’s me who ends up taking care of him, just because I can’t ignore the begging, the need that’s embedded in every muscle of his body. There are times when I look at that dog and am reminded of Marla, in more ways than one.
“Babe, stop it,” Zephyr says. “Please. You know why I’m doing this, but I need you to stop crying. I’m trying to concentrate.” Marla quietens down. I think she’s got a future in drama club, except for the fact that her nose is too big. She’d only get bit parts playing dancing trees with her face all covered so you couldn’t even tell it was her, which is kind of tragic if you stop to think about it.
The sun tumbles down the sky slowly. My stomach growls and I wonder what’s for dinner at home. I wonder how long we’re supposed to stay here before we realize what won’t happen. I wonder if I can get away with skimming chapter six of Lord of the Flies before the quiz tomorrow.
At nine, she constructs a lemonade stand out of my dad’s old poker table and parks it at the corner of our street. We spend all day making the product and she swears we’ll be rich, but we only get three customers, bringing our grand total to seventy-five cents. But she insists that it will happen, people will come, so we wait until the air cools and it has grown dark. We wait until the flies swarming around our lemonade pitchers have all gone to sleep, until my arms are pocked with goosebumps, until I use my sugar-coated hand to loosen her clenched fingers and hold onto her disappointment, until my father walks over and says the time has come for us to go back home.
From my spot on the ground, I can see the golem’s thick stomach, looking much like a pillow packed hard and full with flour. I wait, watching, and it is just like the day when I am all grown and I sit on the floor of Zephyr’s bathroom, where she lies sprawled, and I clean up her face and scoop up the pills that have escaped from her meds tray and I flush the coke down the toilet and I wait, staring at her strange stillness, because I know if I will only be patient, it will happen.
There in the woods, I look at the golem and I wait for his stomach to rise and fall.
She tells me often how she dreams of me before I am born. As a toddler, she thinks up my hair, each brown curl, my eyes, one slightly rounder than the other, the lone freckle on my nose. I am her blank canvas.
When I am a young child, our bedrooms are right next to each other and the walls are paper thin, so I hear when Zephyr cries out from her nightmares. Our parents want us to soothe ourselves, so they don’t come running, but I do. I sneak into her room, and by then she is awake, and she is crying, and holding her hands out for me, and when I squeeze them tight, she whispers to me that she dreams she is in heaven being made, constructed from scratch, but there is a clog somewhere on the assembly line, and so when she tumbles down to earth, there are a few parts of her that haven’t been put in just yet. In the morning, she turns my sleepy face to hers and says, “Don’t worry, I didn’t mess up with you. You’re all finished.”
She sees me entire, imagines every particle, tries my name on her tongue before I am even a kernel of life in our mother’s womb. She tells me I am a creation of her own heart and I believe her when I am a young child chasing after her in the grass and I believe her even still sitting now in the dirt.
When the time comes, Marla tells us she needs to leave. Her parents are waiting for her, they’re probably livid that she’s snuck out. “I wasn’t allowed to come out, you know,” she says to my sister. “But I wanted to see you one last time.” There is a note of hope in her voice that makes me wince for her.
She pecks Zephyr on the cheek, and Zephyr flashes a lazy smile, still standing over the golem. Marla waits, expectant but only for a moment. I wonder if she’s thinking about her parents and the way they look at her now. I wonder if she’s worrying about starting over in Cleveland, where there probably won’t be someone who finds that greasy hair charming. I wish she had known before she started with Zephyr, I wish I could have warned her not to love this girl who can’t even give her a goodbye after shaking up her entire life.
Marla doesn’t look at me when she leaves. There will be more days, September and October ones, yet she is only temporary. There will be more hers to come, but despite Zephyr’s little cruelties, I am here for the long haul, all the way until she decides she cannot endure the noise of her life any longer.
Zephyr is shivering now in the wine-tinted air. I tell her to put the robe back on. She shakes her head no, but after another moment she does. She stares at him still. “What do you think he’ll say?” she laughs. It is a sharp sound in the silence we have been sitting in. It crashes against the trees around us and slices its way to my eardrums. I would not be surprised if she’s forgotten Marla entirely by now, but that only makes me want to stay here longer, to make sure she remembers me.
“He can’t talk,” I tell her. “He’s an unfinished man.” I stand, creep closer to her but she doesn’t move. When I am near enough, I crouch down to see him better. Even in the dimming light, he looks like he is only sleeping.
“That’s right,” she nods. She looks down at me. “Isn’t that sad, Avette?” Zephyr pulls her hair back into a ponytail. I don’t answer. I am suddenly touched by the crude life in front of me. I want to reach forward and grip his hand but I know that it will only crumble and that Zephyr will smack me for it.
My sister sighs. “Sometimes I feel like the biggest idiot on the planet,” Zephyr says. “I thought he could help me. I just didn’t want things not to be real this time. But it’s always the same, Avette. Things are never real.”
I am hunger and fear solid enough that you can hold in your hand. She is all sound and sheen. She is made of splinters that crack down to her very marrow.
I clean up her face and scoop up the pills that have escaped from her meds tray and I flush the coke down the toilet and I wait, staring at her strange stillness…
I say, “Things are real enough. And at least you know you’re not made of dirt, like this guy.” She kicks my shoe, but it is not as hard as I think it will be, and that makes me want to give her my jacket and carry her all the way home. And the part of me that doesn’t love her hates her because I know she will not let me, she will never let me. But despite all those times she disappears from me, from those small moments when we are children until that last final hour, I never want to stop trying to hold her still, to push my own air into her lungs whenever she thinks she can’t keep on breathing.
We wait. The park will close soon and we will make the trek back home in the night. She will convince me tomorrow to go vegetarian with her because she’s been reading about cruel practices in the livestock industry. She will confess how much she likes Celine Dion and beg me not to laugh. She will want to know what I think about Marla’s earrings and I will be oddly grateful when she doesn’t say anything about the greasy hair. She will ask me to follow her and I will, anyplace.
But now, here in the plum dark, we wait for the golem. She says, “Tell me a story. Anything. You talk and I’ll listen. I just want to hear you talk.” I place my hands in the dirt and when I open my mouth, I don’t even know how to begin.
Taylor Kobran holds an MFA from Hollins University. She was runner-up for the 2016 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction and was the 2013 recipient of the Moorehead-Timberlake Award for Creative Writing at Dickinson College. She is interested in literacy education and is from New Jersey.