This story was written by Sheila McIntosh in 826CHI's Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better workshop. She then took it home, polished it, and sent it along to the National Art and Writing Awards, and took home the Golden Key award in the Chicago Regional. Congratulations Sheila!
I hear the crashing rapids pounding in time with my heart. My sister’s hand is in mine, her eyes beseeching me. Suddenly, I feel her slip away. I close my eyes as she screams. Then all I can hear is the river.
I cannot remember a time when I was without Victoria. We were born but a year apart. My first memory is of her knocking into me as she played, sending my painstakingly crafted embroidery across the room to slam into the wall, ripping stitches. That was the first time I got angry, truly angry. It exploded out of me and I pushed her down, hard. As she lay there on the floor, holding her sprained wrist and sobbing, I calmly salvaged my sewing. Our nana found us there.
My temper stayed in a cold place inside myself most of the time. I was praised by my mother as being a perfect little lady, always composed and dignified, and that I was. It was Victoria who was flamboyant, energetic, and beautiful. If they had never heard us speak, many would say we were much alike: both with long black hair, though I kept mine pinned up and Victoria left hers down; blue eyes, though hers were big and sapphire while mine were light and icy. If she was warm, I was like a winter night -- bitter and freezing.
We quarreled because of our differences, but it never got bad enough for me to do something I would regret. As a child, I was moody and prone to fits of temper, but as I grew older I learned to hide my nature. It was expedient for me to be praised and trusted by the adults in my life, instead of treated as unstable and dangerous. I could get more places with false kindness than with screaming. My parents chose to forget my earlier misbehavior. It was their wish, to have the world see their daughters as perfect, and they got it. Victoria was more open and thus had many friends, but I had the respect and relative power that comes of being dignified and calm. My smooth veneer was without a crack, except for my history.
Only two people on the earth remembered my rages. Victoria knew but did not concern herself with it; she baited me carelessly and sometimes unknowingly. My nana, on the other hand, was always careful around me. I was a forest in a drought, and she was always watching for a spark. That was Victoria's one protection through my young years, as she did not grow wiser while she aged, and it made her reckless. Nana meant to help, but now I wonder whether Victoria would have been spared had she felt my anger more.
Nevertheless, our childhood passed smoothly, as we grew accomplished and knowledgeable in history, the arts, writing, and all the charms of society. Victoria blossomed into a beauty with an outgoing disposition, while I was striking and reserved. I grew immune to her small instigations, and she became merely irksome to me, and not rage-inducing, until I was fifteen and she fourteen.
That winter was brutal. It was cold and clear in the day, but in the night sleet and hail fell mercilessly, effectively blinding late-night travelers. On one such day, Victoria went out riding with her friends. As day turned to night and she had not returned, Nana became worried. She fretted in front of the window despite my assurances. Finally she wrapped herself in a shawl and went out into the deep night to find my sister, ordering me not to follow her, as I had a bad cold.
The clock struck nine, ten, eleven. At midnight I heard hoofbeats and stumbled out of bed. Victoria swept in, laughing, shaking snow out of her hair, on the arm of a baron's son, Frederick. Nana was not with her. I told Victoria what had happened and felt a rush of satisfaction as I saw the roses drain from her cheeks, leaving her white and shocked. Frederick offered to go and get her and rode off into the night again.
It was very silent in the manor as Victoria pulled off her riding habit and slipped into a nightgown. I stared out the window, boiling inside. Through the snow flurries, I saw my grandmother's face, lined with ice, and heard my sister laugh on the wind, oblivious. She had never cared like I had, never been considerate of anyone but herself. All her warmth and affection was as fake as my calmness. Her emotions were skin-deep, but mine were deeper.
“Sister?" I did not turn around. "I am so sorry. I never meant for this to happen. I just lost track of time. I wish I had never gone out tonight." So do I, I thought, but did not say it.
A moment later, tentatively, "I'm sure she will be alright. She isn't so old."
“How can you be sure of anything? You're not out there, are you? You're not looking for her!"
“But what if I got lost? If there was something I could do, I would do it. You know that!" I wanted to scream. Control your anger. Do not engage. I turned away.
At two in the morning we heard the sound of hooves in the yard. We ran to the door in time to see Frederick dismount and stagger to the house, Nana in his arms. Her face was bloodless and her breathing shallow. I had to look away. Next to me, Victoria was staring in horror, transfixed. “Go prepare a bed." I shoved her roughly into the next room, and then boiled some water for curing tea. "Call the doctor!"
Frederick jumped back on his horse. It seemed like centuries before he returned with the doctor, who fed the fire and ordered us out of the room.
Nana was deeply ill for a week, and the doctor came every day to bleed her. I didn't speak to Victoria for that length of time. Gradually, I hid my deep fury and tried to forget. Nana recovered some, but was sickly through that winter. She did not get out of bed most days, and I attended to her while Victoria hovered, although her guilt abated with the thaw and we saw her less and less.
That spring came late, and Nana never got to see it. In April she started coughing blood, and was soon delirious with pain no doctor could cure until the Lord took away her suffering. One morning, she did not wake up. Watching her death ripped me up from the inside out. I felt sick myself with fear and grief, but I was slightly consoled that Nana had gone to a place where she would feel no pain. In spite of this, I couldn't bear to attend her funeral. Instead I walked by the river while Victoria sobbed into our mother's shoulder. The river was low and lazy now, but I knew when the spring rains arrived it would be roaring, dashing any driftwood cruelly against the rocks. It calmed me.
Mother decided to take on our finishing herself, as she felt Victoria was too emotional and I heartless. She had none of the natural patience of the teacher though, so we were left alone most of the time. As Victoria was almost fifteen she spent most days in the company of giggling girls her age. I was left alone to wallow in my misery and anger.
In May, Mother decided to throw a ball. I spent my days cooped up inside with Victoria while we sewed our gowns. She was gossiping and insensitive, and didn't seem to notice how much her idle chatter bothered me. She bemoaned her lack of jewelry and talked endlessly about who would attend. I had no such worries. Nana had left me a beautiful pearl necklace, a family heirloom, and I did not care who came.
On the night of the ball, I searched in vain for the necklace. I left no surface untouched, but it was nowhere to be seen. Distraught, I descended to the ball unadorned, agonizing over losing Nana's prized pearls. I stood at the wall, dancing only when Mother demanded it. I caught only glimpses of Victoria.
When the music changed to a lethargic waltz, Victoria finally settled down next to me, catching her breath. The only this I registered about her appearance was the exquisite pearl necklace gracing her throat.
“Where did you get that?" I know my tone was accusing but, flushed with dancing, she didn't pick up on it.
“Oh, I found it in your jewelry box. It matches my dress perfectly, don't you think?" she said airily.
“I cannot believe you!" I was shouting now, drawing odd looks from the assembly. "Nana left that for me! I've been looking for it all day!"
She immediately looked abashed. "I'm sorry, I didn't know."
I ran away so I wouldn't hit her, down to the river. Its waters were swirling dangerously high, almost at the bank. I stared into its rolling depths, trying to control myself. The absolute rage I thought I controlled was back unbidden.
In minutes I heard footsteps. "I'm sorry!"
I ignored her, battling the beast that was my anger, so she slipped between me and the river.
She tried to take my hand, but I pulled out of her grasp. The monster in my chest was screaming to get out. My head pounded. I couldn't take it any more. My hands moved of their own accord as they connected with her chest, pushing her backwards. The last I saw of her was her face, still pleading.
"Sister!" Then the river swallowed her. I looked away, my heart already cooling. I saw something caught on a branch sticking into the river. I reached down to grab the necklace and walked away, to tell the story of a sister who had fallen and drowned.
In a small village with a river flowing past, there was a miller who longed to be a great violinist. He had not enough money to buy a fiddle, so he was constructing one out of driftwood that floated past on the river. One day he went down to the river and was watching it idle by when he spotted a piece of gold fabric. He pulled on it (it was surprisingly heavy) and discovered that it was a dead maiden, with long black hair and a beautiful face, though the river had battered her body. He cut off her hair and used her bones to make his violin. It was distasteful work, but he would be rewarded with the beautiful music he would make.
When the fiddle finally was ready, he polished it until it shone and put the bow to the strings and played a song.