Hannah had intended to knock lightly on the bedroom door, but it hadn’t been closed properly so it opened slowly at her touch. Miriam never closed her door all the way.
She stood in the door frame letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. Keeping her voice low, she spoke into the room, “It’s after 4— ”
She waited. The darkness did not answer.
Letting out a strained sigh, Hannah stepped into the abyss. An unseen collection of detritus gave way as she shuffled deeper into the room. She could differentiate shades of blue-grey by the time she made it to the bed and found a perch next to a lumpy mass of blankets.
“It’s time, love. I need you to get out of bed.”
A muffled groan emerged from the lump.
Hannah’s posture crumpled slightly. She tucked a foot under her thigh and, placing her chin onto her palm, looked around. The room almost didn’t look like the depths of a cave anymore. She could make out the familiar outlines of Miriam’s candles, miscellaneous somethings spilling out of the closet, the piles of notebooks scattered throughout the room, two dinner parties’ worth of dishes and cutlery surrounding the bed.
She stared into the fuzzy remains of an ancient snack stuccoed onto a plate at her feet then got a hold of herself. She clapped her hands and stood up, straightening her long neck and shaking her head like a horse irritated with flies.
She walked over to the window and pulled back the thick curtain, startling sleepy objects across the room with a shock of afternoon sun. The sleepy object that Hannah was most concerned with didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m going to go make you something to eat.” She made her way carefully through the illuminated debris. “I’ll expect you in the kitchen in…fifteen minutes? Let me know that you hear me.”
There was a pause, then the lump groaned again and a bare foot appeared over the edge of the bed.
Hannah took care in closing the door firmly behind her.
Thirty-five minutes later Miriam appeared in the kitchen with a book in hand. Hannah had been reading the paper, but folded it and laid it beside her coffee when Miriam took her seat across the table. Waiting for the listless housemate, laid out precisely on a fall colored placemat, was an unbuttered piece of toast sitting on a napkin, a glass jar with a green ribbon tied around the lip, and a soft boiled egg in a small baby blue ceramic cup that Hannah had made for Miriam when they were younger.
Hannah sat up straight, doing her best to be attentive without appearing so, watching Miriam out of the corner of her eye.
The ritual was perfected. Miriam carefully cracked the top of her egg with the back of her favorite spoon, the one with a crescent of opal embedded in the silver handle, and began her mission. She had their mother’s big hands which made her already small spoon shrink comically in her grasp; she looked like a clumsy giant who had been awakened mid-nap.
The jar of savory seasoning mix (another gift from Hannah) sat patiently as she scooped out the precious powder to carefully sprinkle each mouthful of golden yolk. She ate peacefully; there was an easy, practiced rhythm in her movements and her face was clear of the usual storm. Soon all that remained was a flawlessly empty eggshell on its handcrafted throne and some crumbs. Still, Hannah only relaxed once her sister tucked a greasy curtain of black hair behind each ear and leaned back, thumbing open her book. Exhaling, satisfied, Hannah returned to her paper.
They sat across from one another, reading, wordlessly passing coffee and sugar between them and listening to the ceiling fan click. The peace was broken as soon as Hannah turned on the radio to keep her company as she cleaned. Miriam instantly disappeared into her room.
After she had cleaned the dishes and the sink, swept, mopped, folded her bed back into the couch, showered, and pulled on her uniform, Hannah returned to Miriam’s door.
She knocked even more gently than before, holding the knob to keep the door from swinging open again.
“I’m leaving,” she spoke into the crevice, “don’t wait too long to eat something.”
She thought for a moment before adding, “It could be a nice day for a shower.” And it was true, it could be.
Hannah worked most nights.
She took two buses, wore a thick, starched, itchy outfit, and sat at a desk which stood perpendicular to the front doors of the college housing. Students passed through each night; and then, after a brief dance with looking at ID cards and searching for names amongst paperwork, she would be alone.
Those witching hours spent alone with her thoughts were precious to her. She liked the stillness and the exclusivity, the hush that fell over the world like a quilt, and how it always felt like she was the only one who heard it. She often took out her journal and walkman to fill the silence, or listened to the wind and watched the darkness on the other side of the window.
It was Miriam who had taught Hannah how to love the night. At some point in their childhood Miriam stopped sleeping and, like any good little sister, Hannah was not far behind her.
In the earliest days of their childhood, Miriam led Hannah around their backyard hunting worms and fairies, carried their book bags on the walks to and from school, and put them in Mom’s dresses to dance in the rain. She was sweet, and loud, and then—abruptly, permanently—she changed. She stopped sleeping, stopped speaking, and their mother stopped trying to get either of them to go to school.
Hannah used to sneak into Miriam’s bed at night to hold her sister’s hand and lay by her side. Hannah was already taller than her big sister, and had to bend awkwardly to fit in the bed, but her hands were swallowed by Miriam’s, which even then were sturdy and paw-like. She loved the big square palms and soft skin. She loved how they contained her own hands entirely. They shared the quiet that way, night after night. Their small hot bodies made fire piles of bony kindling.
Some of Miriam’s new behavior seemed whimsical and endearing at first. She started filling their room with divine collections of found objects. Like a wingless magpie, she built her glittering and fragile nest with great care. Miriam collected everything and anything — bits of colored glass, rocks encumbered with mica, and small pieces of leather from the back of their mother’s car seat were amongst her favorite hoards. She arranged and rearranged her precious things obsessively, always humming as she constructed her endless twinkling altars.
Hannah spent many hours of their childhood watching her big sister walk around their room, moving bits and pieces from one altar to another or scribbling in a notebook. She admired the ferocity in her sister’s movements.
Other habits were less easily romanticized.
Periodically, in the quiet of the early morning, Miriam set off into the woods behind their house. She would return hours later with pockets full of scavenged bounty. As Hannah never made it to daylight without dozing off, Miriam waited for her little sister to fall asleep before sneaking out, knowing that she was tormenting her and not caring enough to stop.
Each time that Hannah woke up alone in Miriam’s bed she was overcome with panic. Of course, it was possible that something could happen to her in the woods, but Hannah was concerned Miriam was plotting to leave their childhood home for good. In her deepest knowing heart she trusted Miriam to come home, but it was still terribly frightening to imagine that she wouldn’t.
They were barely teenagers the morning Hannah’s fear blossomed into anger.
It was the second time that week that she had woken up in an empty room. Her hand had reached for her sister before she even opened her eyes; the first thing she saw was her arm stretched across the emptiness beside her. Fearful tears burst out, it became harder and harder to catch her breath. Soon she was gasping between sobs. Startled by the unusual intensity of her emotion, Hannah got up quickly to try and regain control.
Looking around their room in the dim early morning light, Miri’s endless scattered collections seemed to tease Hannah in her distress. She glared at them, then, without stopping to think, she kicked the nearest tower of books with a grunt. It toppled over without hesitation.
One of the books knocked over an altar sending bottle caps, sticks, and whatever else crashing to the ground. She stood there, chest heaving, wet with tears, feeling her fingernails pushing into her palms, and looking at the carnage strewn at her feet. Some of the books were splayed open or bent cruelly with pages crunched against the ground. One of Miriam’s favorite seashells, a lovely thing with pink stripes running along its ridges, was broken almost perfectly in half. Hannah was still furious, still crying, but looking at that broken seashell stirred up deep satisfaction.
Hannah felt a presence in the doorway behind her. She spun around and froze, meeting Miriam’s big dark eyes. She hadn’t heard Miriam come back, she had no idea how long she had been there. The sisters studied each other, stunned by the moment and unsure of who had been caught.
Hannah was a mess. Hot tears streamed down her crimson cheeks, the usually buoyant curls that framed her forehead had been slicked down with sweat, her lips and eyes were swollen. Balanced and at the ready, she postured like a prize fighter as she stared at Miriam, panting and baring her teeth. Her sister stared right back, more frenzied than usual.
The hair on her head bristled like a frightened cat’s, and her massive hands came together hopefully at her chest. Miriam’s mouth danced with a rare smile, which curled up around her flaring nostrils. She was trembling with pride. Hannah could see plainly that Miri was excited to have caught her little sister in such an uninhibited display. Of the two of them, usually, Hannah would rather bite her tongue and stress clean the kitchen while Miriam was much more capable of violent honesty. It was as if she was thinking, “I’ve been waiting for you, welcome” and was prepared to skip into the woods with her new feral companion.
Dizziness overcame Hannah as she remembered the fear that had overcome her just an hour ago at the thought of finally being abandoned by her beloved sister. That fear tightened its grip on Hannah’s spine as she looked at her sister who was always close enough to touch but remained utterly unreachable. Hannah realized she’d grown tired of waiting for her childhood playmate to return and she was tired of the stranger in front of her. After that morning, she stopped sleeping in Miriam’s bed.
Hannah abandoned their room and took to sleeping in the living room on the fold out couch. The living room was stark and empty compared to the cluttered nest that they shared for so long. Everything was different, even the silence. For years they stayed out of each other’s way, rarely crossing paths for more than a moment. She couldn’t imagine sharing anything with Miriam anymore.
The new arrangement stuck, even when their mother left the state for a new job, leaving a lasagna in the freezer and her bedroom vacant and haunted. They never opened her door.
Hannah started working nights at a diner to cover their expenses. It was a strange reintroduction to people after all those silent housebound years. Words always seemed to get caught in her teeth and betray her inexperience when she asked about refills or offered the weekly special, but it didn’t matter much and she could navigate her duties.
Her primary clientele were ghostlike truckers who came and went as if they never existed. They were so tired and impermanent they may as well have been trapped between worlds, bound to the earth by a fragile tether always threatening to snap. The sloped backs of their necks changed colors with the neon signs hanging over them as they hunched over their coffee and pie. The only thing that betrayed their place in the world was an occasional wedding ring.
Besides the small handful of nightly customers, the diner was populated by the deeply confusing teenage boys who worked in the kitchen; and Lori, who had been waitressing there seemingly forever and worked nights alongside Hannah. Lori was on her last year of nursing school but it was impossible to tell that she routinely worked 70 hour weeks. As transient and placeless as the truckers were, she seemed to be at home wherever she went.
Lori was dazzling. She glided around the diner with effortless purpose, always with her back straight and chin lofty. She always seemed prepared to let out the laughter that waited deep in her belly. In fact, she was good at everything Hannah wasn’t—most prominently speaking. Luckily for Hannah and her clumsy tongue, Lori didn’t need any outside contributions to keep a conversation going.
Though Hannah loved the diner, and Lori, she couldn’t get comfortable there. Night after night she became desperately overstimulated, and missed the solitude and stillness that she’d grown to love at home. When the night security job landed in her lap she didn’t think twice. The commute was longer and uniform slightly less comfortable, but it was more hours and she could be alone.
Spending her nights in near-complete solitude, while certainly better than the diner, could not compare to the closeness the sisters shared every night. Hannah began to miss Miriam. Not the bright and happy child who she once loved, but the magpie who took its place in her heart.
By then Miriam was neither child nor beast. When Hannah entered their old room for the first time in years she was forcefully taken aback, for the glittering nest that had been their shared home had become a cave. Miri had lost interest in her passionate quests and was focused on making up for all those sleepless years. Hannah started bringing Miri food in the evenings before she went to work. First she left her offerings at the door and knocked, then gradually began asking Miriam to come and receive them. Eventually, through trial and error, she discovered that gently waking Miriam and then waiting for her in the kitchen suited them both very well.
It was a lovely way to start the day, after all: drinking coffee, sharing the silence, and asking absolutely nothing of each other.
Illustration: Sulamith Wülfing
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