It is said that happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in their own way. My family’s problems were not so common as money or any number of the invisible resentments that stain a family tree. We were afflicted long before we drew breath and it would continue long after we were own.
Each family has its own stories to tell. This one is not mine but about my twin sister, Maggie.
I was born ninety seconds before her which was a puerile but effective way to tease her even though we were both identical. We had the same ears that stuck out no matter what we did with our flaxen blonde hair, which lent us a gawkiness that we still held hopes of outgrowing.
Our parents were from the less fertile branch of the tree. We had a standing army of cousins, some of whom we had never met and all of them were in possession of gifts and curses, much as we were. Maggie and I were the custodians, the curators who recorded our mutual history with a deep and loving care for the secret history we had inherited.
I could not tell Corey and Ethan, our twin cousins on our mother’s side, apart, but I knew that Corey could tame aggressive animals with a smile and Ethan could sing three-part harmonies on his own.
Maggie and I knew things. It was not always useful or appropriate knowledge, such as when we consulted on an apparent abduction where the only clue was a black penny and the series of horse mutilations that ended in the disturbed visions of a young woman. We knew the rituals and processes of our family enough that we could answer questions with the blithe confidence of youth.
Our lives were spent in quiet service until Maggie exerted a rebellious streak and ran away with an artist who had moved from collage to heroin and emotional vandalism. The worst part of it was waking up or falling asleep coated in the chill analgesia of the drugs she was taking or the junk sickness, craving a drug I had never taken.
When we were nine years old, Maggie cut off all my hair so she could decide what it would look like on here. Despite that, I forgave her and when I awoke at four in the morning, my nose streaming blood and the bitter taste of vomit sliding down the back of my throat, I woke Ethan and managed to persuade him to drive me to her.
I was guided by instinct more than anything solid, but I knew my sister and she knew me.
We were too late.
She laid on a stained mattress; the needle protruding from between her toes staring out at nothing. We wrapped her in the only blanket that did not crunch if you folded it. Ethan helped me load her into the back of his truck.
The absence was chilling, a spreading ache that coated the lining of my lungs and stomach until each breath reminded me that she was gone. We drove and every fibre of my being screamed for her, angry that the world had not stopped to mourn her passing.
I knew the solution. Ethan drove us to the family estate, acres of land gone fallow and wrapped up in enough paperwork to deter anyone curious about who owned it. At the far end stood a copse of three oak trees, that had been planted together and grown into a mutated threesome of wood and leaf, overlapping and snaking around one another.
One of the first homilies we learned was not one that you could stitch into a sampler
One time good,
The third could be both
And would drive you
We buried Maggie beneath the tree, still wrapped up in the blanket and I waited until dawn.
She clawed her way up, coughing and crying as she dragged herself into my arms. I held her, breathing through my mouth to avoid the stink of her evacuated bowels.
Her tears and vows never to touch that shit again led me to believe that this had been a good first trip. I knew junkies lied, but she was my sister.
She stopped eating meat, started running and although she said that she was off men for good, Corey started mooning after her in such a way that it made me wonder.
I threw myself into the work, organising the family history during the Civil War from oral histories and personal correspondence, scanning and uploading them as a way to keep myself busy and purposeful.
We would feel one another, like tuning into a strange yet familiar radio station on a long drive to nowhere.
Five years passed before we had cause to visit the Three Trees again.
A car accident. Her and Corey travelling back from a house viewing two towns after. We had to scrabble in order to recover her remains. There wasn’t enough of Corey to resurrect, and I had no one to accompany me. I had crops of blisters on my hands by the time I had dug the grave for her, and I rolled her in, picking up the lump of burned flesh from her left hip that sloughed away and revealing the white, slick gleam of bone underneath.
She came back. I had to lock her in the root cellar until the worst of it was over. Imagine the worst things that someone who you loved and loved you in return could say, delivered over and over without pause for breath. She fell into a long, thick silence after that but by degrees, she became my sister again.
When we went to the mall a year later, shopping for Christmas gifts, and the acne scarred kid pulled the handgun from his backpack, she pushed me to the tiled floor before she fell after me. Her stomach was dark and slick with blood but she stayed conscious as I dragged her to the car.
‘What’ll it be this time?’ she said.
Her voice was a slurred whisper. The car filled with the coppery-sweet scent of her blood and there was an ugly, bubbling sound that underlaid each breath she took.
‘I’ve never been sure.’ I said.
She tried to laugh, but that brought on a coughing fit that sent her unconscious and I drove faster, hoping to make it to the trees in time.
The ground was hard, I lost three fingernails trying to gain purchase on the frozen, packed ground and all the while I moved between the polarities of love and hate. That she had lived and died whilst I stood idly by. I waited and shivered in my vigil.
Somewhere in between.
I wondered if someone would stand watch over me like this. The more I loved someone, the less they gave in return and yet I still stood watch.
The soil began to stir as she dug herself out.