She couldn’t say how she had come to burn her hands that night. I forgot too. Likely it was sleep walking became the story and then the truth.
My sister and I are redheaded, born fifteen months apart. When we were small, people marveled at our hair and asked if we were identical twins. We liked the attention, liked pretending we were twins. We practiced reading each other’s thoughts, staring into each other’s tensed eyes. We held hands tightly to boost the connection.
We figured twins had special abilities, and we liked to think that we did too. We were close, she and I. We didn’t fight so much like normal siblings or tattle on each other. We shared our Barbie dolls and underpants. We slept in the same bed for years.
And I do remember. The long shadow; the yellow light; the quiet shouting, as dreamlike as my memory. He and she again, a difference over hot water.
This difference beginning earlier that night, a Saturday night, bath night. My stepdad ran the water hot. It burned your skin to get in, but the pain was temporary for me. Eventually my skin would adjust, the burning slipping like a thought. But my sister would panic and resist getting in. She would scream, it’s hot, too hot.
Like her, I felt the hot bath water and his angry impatience swelling like a new bruise. But I didn’t feel my sister’s pain, it’s important to note, just as I didn’t feel when my grandpa shot a bull one Saturday morning. Or didn’t feel the bull’s guts being piled in three washtubs; didn’t feel the horror of it, that is. The young don’t, I think, feel horror as much. Or maybe we do and just forget.
Because if I had felt her pain, I may have screamed, the water is hot, when he picked her up, put her in roughly, handling her like an ornery calf. Like my mom and dad, my stepdad had grown up on a farm, spanking our bare asses with a leather belt like poisoning the nest of kittens in the milk house. It was no matter.
Later that night, I woke up. The bathroom light shone in the hallway. Likely she had got up to use the toilet. The water was running in the bathroom sink. He was yelling like before: it’s not hot. She was crying like before. I fell back asleep, their high and low voices and the shush of the water entering my dreams like a backcloth.
Later my sister woke me up. Her hands hurt she said. I got my mother. They took her to the emergency room. I went to the neighbor lady’s. We played Old Maid in the early hours of the morning and colored. My sister, her hands all wrapped in white gauze, couldn’t hold my get-well card.
Eventually she healed, and a blurry vision of mummy hands is the end result. Sometimes we ask each other if it happened like we remembered, checking because we’re not quite sure. It was just so long ago, and we were so young. We lived so many years afterwards, with him, my mom, then a new sister, not speaking of it.
But I think about my sister and I, our memories, keep imagining his fists gripping her wrists, thrusting her hands into the water rushing and steaming. When my hands are submerged in dishwater, I can’t help thinking about tolerance and heat. I’ve read that redheads are more sensitive to thermal pain; a gene mutation makes our receptors feel more intensely. Says Jena Pincott, “It’s fun to speculate. Could a fiery, short temper be a pain avoidance mechanism?”
If you look more closely at our pictures of when I was five and she was four, you will see that my sister and I do not look identical. I have freckles, even then. She has a rounder nose, a paler complexion. Her hair is like a copper pipe; mine is auburn. But it gets more dull, more brown each year, while hers continues to burn.
Original illustration for “A Midnight Burning” by Elizabeth Wilson. Wilson is a high school senior and a member of the National Art Honor Society. In the fall of 2016, she will attend Eastern Illinois University, where she plans to major in graphic design.
That you can write about this horrific experience with such eloquence is startling, and truly a gift. And the ending – wow.
Beautiful and frightening.
Gorgeous writing. Riveting and stunning. Thank you for this story.
The step dad is horrifying!