By Heather Wilson
Michelle takes me up the hill to see the goats.
I’m in Arkansas for Thanksgiving and I haven’t seen my sister Michelle for going on seven years: This is our quiet, incomplete reunion. She lives in the sticks with a construction worker husband who built their house. It’s a beautiful place, but you can see the flaws. Most glaringly, the unfinished set of stairs are nailed in crooked, which Sam explains by popping the tab on a Busch beer—“Turns out I was too many in.” The back yard, too, is somewhere between a calendar pic and a junkyard. Right behind the house, there’s a dried up pond and a collection of household artifacts. An ancient ceramic bathtub riddled with bullet holes, a couple monster truck size wheels, scrapyard metal, discarded wood. But beyond that non-pond roll the wooded hills, goats grazing near a tin-roofed house.
Every couple of mornings Michelle goes out to patrol their property borders. It’s maybe a three-mile parameter, fenced in by a wood and electric wire fence. While our brothers Dan and Jon stay at the house to put back Busch beers, Michelle goes on her patrol. This time I join her. I put on my tennis shoes, a flimsy windbreaker. Michelle wears her usual getup: cut-off cargo shorts over long underwear, high rubber boots, and a Columbia jacket. “It’s the goat-herder’s uniform,” she says, sing-song Arkansas twang in her voice. She doesn’t bring her gun (she’s says she’s still afraid of it) but a little can of Mace. “There’s meth heads out in the woods,” she says, “squatters, drifters.”
I can’t imagine encountering a meth head climbing an electric fence without laughing, but she’s serious.
“Plus,” she adds, “I think our little Chinese neighbor was stealing goats.”
Her suspicion remains unexplained: I add it to the collection of differences, divergences, as startling to me as the closet full of guns, or her Confederate take on race politics. We head up the hill. As we climb, I keep looking at her, sneaking endless unbelieving double takes. My childhood vision of her keeps surfacing, an insistent holograph from the past. After all, I saw her last in the days before I left Arkansas for good. I was only eleven going on twelve when we moved.
As a child, I knew her slightly. When mom regained custody of Dan and me, Jon and Michelle stayed with our foster parents. At fourteen and sixteen, they were old enough to choose, and the foster home was a safe bet: college, financial security. So I didn’t see her much. Instead of an upbringing together, we had visitations. Jon and Michelle would swing by and pick us up from mom’s apartment. Sometimes we’d go to the mall, and I’d follow Michelle around in the chill air, window-shopping. Sometimes we’d go swimming or take a couple hours at the park. They barely seemed like siblings to me: more like older guardian angels, distant aunts and uncles.
When I got old enough to notice such things, Michelle began to represent a world of grownup-ness I had no access to. Femininity, I might have called it, if I’d had the word for it. She took pains with her appearance. She was thin, and had jet black hair that hung in perfect ringlets. She wore skin-clinging Hollister tops and white-washed jeans. Even though she was only five-foor-two or so, she seemed so tall. I never imagined I could look like that, but I admired her. It occurred to me that if I had to turn into something eventually, it would be her.
Perhaps that was because her visits often included an itinerary of instructions on my coming of age. She “fixed” my hair, brushing out the knots and twisting it into a tight, painful knot at the top of my head. She told me to wear deodorant. Sunscreen, she informed me, would not help me get tan. My pale, sunburn-prone skin perturbed her to no end. As did my prematurely hairy legs and my arsenal of “heathen” clothes. Mom never complained about anything I wore, baggy athletic shorts or a shin-length toga-esque dress. But my outfits often elicited a cascade of scorn from Michelle. Some of the distaste targeted Mom—“I can’t believe mom lets you out the door in such rags”—but as I got older, the buck passed to me. I should have a little discretion, after all: I was ten years old.
Halfway up the hill, the goats circle us in curiosity. One grizzled salt-and-pepper goat, ripe with age, nuzzles Michelle’s hip. “This one’s my baby,” she says. “His name is Coco. When he was born he was about this small.” She cups her palms together. “Sam, he promised me he would die. But I fed him by hand for months, and now he’s fatter than all of them.” She laughs. “He follows me everywhere, probably thinks I’m his mom.”
Coco nuzzles her, leaving a trail of white slobber on her cut-offs, but she doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. She’s not the sister I knew: pulling every strand of my hair into something presentable, searching my face for smudges. Instead, when she looks at me as I shyly extend my hand to the billy goat, she says my name with wonder: “Pilar,” stretching the r to its limit. For a second, the name catches me off-guard. These days everyone calls me Heather, but as a child my family preferred my more poetic middle name. Hearing it now, southern drawl dragging syllables, the name rings with a phantom. I feel rewound.
I say, “What?”
And Michelle shakes her head. “I can’t believe…,” trailing off. Neither of us can complete the sentence: I can’t believe who you are. I remember that other Michelle too well, and vice versa. We are both a little rewound: I can hear the static of cassette tapes slowly reeling backwards, the click of recognition. She rubs her knuckles in the groove of the Coco’s ears, and I try to make out the discrepancy, past and present kaleidoscopically aligning and departing before me. I can’t help but notice how thin she is—still is.
I remember visiting Michelle and Sam’s place out in the woods when I was a kid. Sam was a big guy who called a plate of six tuna sandwiches a snack. The back of his neck was a swatch of desert, sunburned to boiling, and he wore mud-caked construction boots and worked sun-up to sun-down. When Michelle stood next to him she looked diminutive, a shadow. Sam would tease her for her size, calling her chicken-butt, mocking her strange and increasingly strict dietary habits.
Indeed, every time I saw her, the list of forbidden foods racked up: peanut butter, bread, mayo, egg yolk. Everything was too high calorie, even bread. Especially bread. When she did eat? The portions baffled me: one teacup of fruit salad? A sliver of hamburger? A bite of plain oatmeal? In my mind, you just didn’t eat oatmeal that way—you added maple syrup and apples, downed a whole bowl, and asked for more. I ate the way I dressed: like a heathen, mastering a ferocious chew-swallow system that almost matched Sam’s.
“You want some food with that plate?” Sam teased her.
Though Michelle’s eating habits perturbed me, I didn’t know to worry until I began to hear the rest of the family murmuring. Our mom especially—every time she saw Michelle, she made a fuss over feeding her. Or trying to feed her; these attempts usually met a wall of indignation. No, Michelle would not be joining in on a lunch of leftover hamburger helper. No, she did not want a dill pickle. And no, she certainly did not want a cookie—ever.
Sickness, that’s what mom called it when Michelle wasn’t around: “She’s so obsessed with the way, she looks she won’t eat a damn thing and now it’s killing her.” I began to believe that one day while flipping through an old family album I’d found. About a dozen or so photos had been doctored, some unknown figure cut out, leaving behind a ragged absence. My father, I thought at first. I tried to imagine Mom rampaging against his memory, and I couldn’t. Mom never cared much for revisionist history; she was always in the process of debriefing me on her mistake ridden life. No, it was Michelle cutting herself out of photographs. She didn’t like the way she looked, but she especially didn’t like the way she’d looked as a teenager, ten pounds heavier, the shimmer of baby fat clinging to her face.
The idea struck me hard, the way new knowledge always did. That Michelle, who I idolized, could hate her body enough to attempt its erasure, set in motion inside me a whole series of considerations: of self, of body, of borders. Before then, my body seemed a beatable, bruisable playground thing, vessel for hunger. It fluctuated, grew, needed sleep, got sunburned—but never failed. For Michelle, the body did nothing but fail. She perfected her appearance constantly, to no avail. Standing in front of the only full-length mirror in the house, I examined myself in this new light, thinking about the puff of my cheeks, the divot of my belly, how my gangly limbs intersected my torso like mislaid roads. If Michelle was imperfect, I was even more so. After all, she had put in enough time telling me so.
We trudge up a hill so steep I think each new step will send me flying backwards. Michelle’s used to it but I’m sorely out of shape and probably a little anemic—I gather my breath for each burst of chat. And we talk about nothing—or everything: what we’ve been doing for six years, as if we can summarize our new selves. I tell her I do comedy now, write a lot, still read a lot. She tells me she’s been collecting first editions. She buys them on Amazon and sells them on E-bay for five times the price—“to suckers.” She promises to show me her Hemmingway collection. I promise to send her something I’ve written. We come up against the electric fence, the strip of wire that blends into the fallen foliage of silver, and follow it along the slope. I want to talk about bodies and borders, I want to know if she’s happy, if she’s changed. But I can’t. I don’t know how to breach the subject. “I don’t see any meth heads,” I say, and laugh.
There came a point, right before I left Arkansas, that Michelle knew she had gone too far. She’d lost too much weight, looked sickly even to herself. But she still couldn’t eat. Every spoonful felt like a betrayal of some long-gone ideal, an invasion of substance: teeth resisted chewing, throat resisted swallowing, stomach resisted digestion. By the time things got easier for her, by the time she could eat a bowl of eggs, I had already left Arkansas. I never saw her heal, the slow motion of change.
At the end of our walk together, Michelle and I end up where we started, by the shed. The goats come to slobber at our hands like they didn’t see us an hour ago. “We should probably go clear the table,” Michelle says, and I laugh. This isn’t a turn of phrase. Michelle’s kitchen table is an actual mess, covered with painting supplies: cups filled with color-filthy paintbrushes, bottles of acrylic and water paint, half-done portraits resting on their easel beds.
“We have real work to do,” I say, and we trot down the hill to the unfinished house and the cluttered table and the unmade mashed potatoes.
On the way back from Michelle’s, Jon and I stop at a gas station to pick up a snack and cigs. A stick-thin, all-bones burnout of a woman swimming in her clothes pushes in the glass door to the gas station. “Meth head,” Jon says, “or anorexic—can’t really tell the difference around here.” He laughs. It sounds like some kind of sick game show. “Back when Michelle was anorexic I used to say, Michelle what will the neighbors think?”
I laugh too. But it hurts a little bit. “She’s better now, right?”
“Yeah,” he says, “Much better.”
But that walk along an electric perimeter confirmed what I feared—that I was more likely to imagine Michelle than know her, or know how to know her. Meeting her again, I mapped the life I had lived without her on her, stretched her to fit lines I’d drawn in her absence. I want to believe Jon more than anything, want to be able to see her as she is, but cut-up photographs keep swimming up to meet me, and I see only the girl who tried to erase herself, a girl who is as much me as it is her.
HEATHER WILSON is recent graduate of the University of North Carolina’s creative writing program. Her work will be published in Off Assignment, an international online magazine for non-traditional travel literature. In college she performed in an improv and sketch troupe, The False Profits. She now lives in Durham, North Carolina.