All I’ll Carry
All I’ll carry is what fits in my backpack, but a picture of you is one of those things. I’m in it, too, looking the wrong way, features fuzzy. We are alike but not exactly alike. We grew from the same egg, but I am 23 minutes older. Somehow you never blinked at the wrong moment, or turned your head away in a blur of tumbled hair. You, by the barbecue grill, holding out your waiting bun. I don’t think anyone told you to smile, but there you are, smiling. You in your party hat. You in your GRANDMA WENT TO BRANSON, MO, AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT T-shirt. Rainbow spray of lawn sprinkler arcing behind us. In those days water flowed everywhere, from taps and fountains, from shower heads and sprinklers, filling washing machines, filling swimming pools. Imagine a time when people pumped gallons and gallons of water into a cement hole in the ground and swam in it. So much water. How could we ever run out? Sunsets lasted forever then, or seemed to. The sun slid down slowly, slowly, shades of orange and salmon and almost purple. Still time to play, we would think. Still time to be outside. Until there wasn’t, until the sky was black, and we were gathered inside, away from the stars and the fireflies sparking at the edges of the yard, next to the raspberry bushes where I told you I saw a wolf once, but I really didn’t. You were afraid of the dark. Afraid of wolves in bushes and ghosts in mirrors. I’d tease you about it, make zombie noises, and our mother would tell me to behave. Nothing in the dark that’s not there in the light, she’d tell you. But in the light I could see it coming, you’d say. Maybe you knew then what was waiting for you in the dark. What was waiting for all of us. The dark world that lay ahead.
How far away you seem now, you in the land of sun, adobe, and sand, and me here in the dim green overhang of dripping pines. But you were always the one the sun shone upon, while I sought the shade. The last time I visited, you took me to your hair salon, bought me bright gypsy skirts and clingy tops with pencil straps that I would never wear, except around you. You said I shouldn’t neglect myself, said denying ourselves the pleasures and comforts we could have wasn’t a virtue.
But so many can’t have them, I’d say.
Then we have to enjoy those things for them, you’d answer. Dousing your light won’t make anyone else’s shine brighter. Living some marginal existence, eating bean sprouts and living in a trailer won’t save the world.
But I chose to be marginal. Like an animal whose best weapon is camouflage, I thought my chances were better on the margins, in the humble places of the world, on the scratchy, fickle borders.
I never had the brilliant career they predicted for me when we were children. With you, they spoke of confidence and charm. With me, it was how bright I was, how advanced.
You were the pretty one and I was the smart one, is what they meant. An odd distinction to make, considering we’re identical twins. But I am a librarian. I understand the impulse to divide, to classify. To assign everything to its correct shelf.
Siblings – rivalry
In the school chorus they gave you the solos. I stood in the back, tinking a triangle. We both had the gene for elite athletes (we knew; our mother had our DNA tested), but you joined the soccer team, I joined the swim team. Which wasn’t really a team at all, and that was how I liked it. I kept my head down, stayed in my lane, pushed my way to the finish line. I didn’t help anyone else, and they didn’t slow me down.
I wish we hadn’t fought, that last visit. There you were, the golden girl, long hair flying out behind you as we walked the trail. You in the lead, your skin blushing like a ripe peach.
Maybe you’re right, I said. Maybe I should do facials. Get that dewy, youthful look.
You laughed. It’s sweat, you said. Or that special glow of the expectant mother.
That was how you told me. I stopped walking. Really? I asked.
I’m pretty sure, you said. The test was positive.
This was before the earthquake, but after the fires. After the rolling blackouts, but before the vlog index and the virus quarantines. Before the last polar bear starved on the last melting ice cap, but after the first, the third, the one thousandth.
It’s selfish, I said. This world is dying. You can’t do that to a child.
You spun clockwise, and for the first time since we were children you slapped me.
My body, you said. My life. It’s already done.
I slept in a tree last night. Sweet birch: I cracked open one of the hanging catkins and smelled its clean, sharp odor, like the tall bottles of liquid soap whose labels we used to read. Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap. All-One-God, All-One-World, Moses and Gandhi and Mama Cat. We’d try to puzzle it out but never could. I wish I had that soap now.
I remember baths, long and soapy. When we were young and shared one tub we’d take the bubbles, slap them over our chests, say we were ladies wearing bras. In those days we bathed together not because water had to be found, and tested, and hauled, and boiled, but because it was easier for our mom. Kill two birds with one stone, she’d say, and you’d cry because you didn’t want the birds to be killed. That’s okay, she’d say. We’ll wash the birds instead.
Once the sky was thick with passenger pigeons, but that was a sky you and I never knew. I wish I could send you a letter by pigeon, by pony, by post. I wish I could let you know I’m coming to find you, so you’ll know, and hang on.
After the earthquake and before the eruption, there were so many warnings all at once. Find higher ground. Remain below. Shelter in place. Evacuate immediately.
I remember the Evacuation Route signs, half-fallen, pointing randomly to the sky from earth heaved up in twisted gopher holes.
Any direction is better than where you now stand.
Did you stay or did you go? Will I find you surrounded by cans of food in a storm cellar or only a smashed house, only an abandoned car?
It’s easy to lose track of time on the road. I know seasons by what blooms and dies, but this was the volcano winter. Nothing feels the same. I try to count months from that first ultrasound, the IT’S A BOY postcard.
Will I find you with an infant at your breast? A baby learning to walk? Will I find you silent and alone?
I talk to you in letters I can’t send. I call to you in dreams, because dreams are all we have. In my dreams you are small, but you have wings.
When a bird flies too high its song is lost. I stay tethered to the earth, ready to follow a trail, ready to read the signs.
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