S H O R T S T O R Y
b y p e g g y m u n s o n ~ p r o v i d e n c e , r h o d e i s l a n d
THE SECRET, the one I never told, is this: My sister found a strange egg. I speak only of the general shape and make-up of what she found, because the thing she found in the woods that day was a palm-sized, glowing orb that hovered several inches off the ground.
"What is that?" my sister asked. When she poked it, a bit of her finger went inside the glow, and the egg hummed like a strong current. When she withdrew her fingertip -- and this is the weird thing -- the egg was smooth as driftwood, the ridges from her invasion all gone.
"Don't tell anyone about this egg," my sister said. "This egg is bad news. Don't be stupid, okay?"
My sister threatened me. If I ever went back to get the egg, she would tell everyone that it belonged to an endangered bird, and I had touched the egg and it was tainted and now the mother would not love it.
"Get it?" she said. "How would you feel without your mother's love?"
So, I never retrieved the egg. I don't know if my sister went back for the egg. But the problem is, I'm not sure if it really happened because I left the proof, just left it like the fool I was, in that place in the woods back behind where we lived. I'm not sure if there ever was an egg, or if I'm faking and the egg never happened. This is the detail that drives me crazy: I don't know for sure if the egg was real.
That night my sister snuck into my room. She stood with her back pressed against the window so that the ambient light from outside backlit her wild hair, and she said, "You should forget what you saw. You should just forget that stupid egg. It was nothing, okay? Nothing."
"Why are you acting so mad at me?"
"Just forget it." She shook her head like everything I said was a catastrophe. "I thought you'd be too stupid to understand anyway."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
She sighed. "Don't you get it? I found the egg the day before. I thought I would share with you what I had found, but you're too dumb to keep a secret."
"No, I'm not, I swear." I opened my eyes widely at her, so she could see I was sincere.
"You'd better not tell anyone this." Her voice was quavering.
"Tell what? Is there something else?"
"Well," she paused. "It's just ... I don't think the egg has any kind of mother." She stared at me. "Okay, what I'm saying is ... I think the egg's mother won't come back because of where I put my finger. Because of how I stuck my finger in, I think I ruined the egg."
I rose up in my bed and saw the giant shadow of me behind her willowy frame.
"How can you say that? What do you mean?" I felt myself getting angry. "How could you do that to the egg?"
My sister started shaking her head and pacing.
"It's all my fault," she sobbed. "It's my fault. I ruined it. I never should have put my finger in the egg." Then her palms grappled for the contour of her forehead.
"No, no. Don't worry," I said, suddenly feeling sympathy. I reached out my hand to touch her hair. I loved it when I felt older than her. "Eggs don't really feel things, do they? Eggs don't feel the way we do. You didn't really hurt that dumb old egg."
She yanked herself away from me. She started crying uncontrollably. "You idiot! How can you say that? How can you be so coarse and awful? I killed the egg. I killed it. Get it? It's dead. Don't you see that? Dead!
"The egg didn't look dead," I said.
She cursed at me, then came up close to me on the bed and put her hands on my shoulders and held me to the headboard.
"You," she said, "are too dumb to have the same parents as me."
That night I lay awake wondering. Did my sister know the consequences when she put her finger in the egg? Did she know what she was doing? How could she do it a second time then, when she knew what might happen, when she was with me? Where was the egg's mother? Did the egg's mother care? And was it truly enough to repel the mother that a kid stuck her finger in; did the mother sense danger? Had the mother felt such danger before, when she was an egg herself, the danger of fingers and of legs approaching, the thankful rustle of some kind of savior? Did she know all this in the fluid of her egg memory? How could the egg just erase like it did, brushing off my sister's fingerprints? Did the egg have a mother? Was the mother kind? Did she really care?
In the morning, my sister was in the kitchen with a paring knife, poking blood from the tip of her finger.
"Stop it," I shouted at her. "What are you doing? Are you crazy?"
"This is the bad finger," she said to me. "I should be punished for killing the egg. And besides, I want to know how the egg feels, alone without a mother."
"The egg feels nothing!" I was practically screaming. "Do you understand? The egg hasn't given you a second thought. The egg is an egg!"
"The egg feels a lot of things that you've never felt in your stupid, miserable life."
"How do you know?" I asked, hurt.
"Because my finger was in there."
That afternoon I tried to go out and look for the egg. I tried to navigate through the woods the way we'd done that day. I tried to observe the difference between various berries and trees. But my sister was the one I always followed in there, she knew orienteering. She was the one who guided me everywhere. She was the only one who could find the egg. I would never find an egg on my own. I cursed my own stupid fingers. Why couldn't they point me inside of something good? Why couldn't they show me what was in there?
When I got to the place I thought the egg had been, there was only a hole in the ground. I got down on all fours and started pawing at the dirt like a truffle pig, digging for whatever could be in there. But this was simply conceit, I knew it. I would never find anything as spectacular as the egg. It had been my sister's find, she came before me. And who cares if she killed her own stupid discovery? It had glowed once, I saw it. I could vouch for her if I wanted. I knew for a second that the egg was real, and the feeling when she stuck her finger in was something truly special. The feeling must have been special, because it was worth destroying a mother's love. It must have been real, if it was worth something so awful.
I tried fervently to remember the egg, how big it was, its general shape, the way it might fit inside my hand, the way a finger could slip in, the general tint of light around it, which I believed not to be yellow at all, but purely white and luminescent, with a little blue beneath. I could never have anything but the memory of the egg. I could never have what my sister had, what she could not describe.
Though she had tried: "It felt soft and wet and cool. Perfect, the way snow falls and you take your bare hand and put it underneath, scoop under a drift. And your hand is still warm from your mittens, and it feels for a second like you are cupping it, the snow, like it has weight, and then it melts against your hand.
But then sometimes she said it with a kind of anguish, a frustration: "You will never know what it feels like. To touch it then leave it alone. You're too stupid to know. I can't even tell you. And don't you see how awful I am, how I left the egg alone?"
And sometimes she was callous: "I had to kill the egg. The egg was too stupid to make it. Trust me. I did right by the egg."
I begged her to somehow show me what she felt when she touched the egg, to somehow touch me in that way, the way that was so important as to destroy a mother's love. I begged her to touch me like that, so I would know, so I would understand. But she just couldn't, that's what she said. She just could not do that.
A picture was taken that year, and my sister had no face. My uncle was a bad developer. He pulled the image from the fixative too soon. My sister had no face, just a smear of white, like she was pulled from another place too soon and couldn't make an expression. My uncle tried to fix things after that photograph, because my sister was mad about her facelessness. He told us he would take our pictures separate, to ensure there wasn't such a contrast between her lack of face and my full occupation of the frame. He knew about sisters, since he had my mother. He took me into the darkroom to show me what I might become, if I were developed right, if I had more than a smear for a face. He turned out the darkroom lights, so there was nothing.
"Isn't this something?" he asked me in the darkness. It felt like nothing.
Then he had me hold his big finger, that's what he called the thing he put into my hand. "It is like a big finger," he said, "but it's only on a man."
He had me hold it and squeeze it and rub my hands on it. He told me I was his favorite niece.
"Don't tell your sister this ever," he said, "but you're my favorite one."
My sister had the egg, but now I had this secret.
"Don't tell your sister ever," he said. "If you look really closely at the picture, you will see she is becoming a white monster, a spirit of some kind, and can't be trusted with the secrets you and I know." He put his big finger into my mouth, just for a second, and my lips felt the slight bumpy texture.
"You know how to keep secrets, don't you?"
When we came out of the darkroom, my sister was under the shroud of the big old camera, wearing it like a funeral veil. My uncle pulled her out, a little forcefully. He sat her down on the old Victorian couch where I had posed awhile before. She didn't smile when the bulb went off. I saw white spots for several seconds after the flash, like eggs, and a feeling rising in me like cold. The way you step into cold water and it leaks into your shoes and the feeling just rises, not falls. The feeling rises and stays.
Then I felt awful and wanted to go home. I felt awful the way the egg must feel, with no mother, the way the egg must feel alone with no savior. How the egg must absorb its mother's memory, that white stuff, the sticky egg white that could tell it what's next, what's next, if the egg wasn't simply so unformed.
"Why were you so stupid," I yelled at my sister later. "Why did you have to stick your finger in the egg? Don't you have any restraint?"
My sister hung her head, she seemed ashamed. "Why are you talking about that?" she asked.
"There's something wrong with you, that you didn't have a face. There's something weird about you that you found the egg."
"Shut up about the damn egg."
"You're a murderer," I said. "I'm ashamed that you're my sister."
"Shut up," she said more calmly, her nails digging into her own leg. "Shut up," she said more loudly. "I don't want to think about the egg."
"Well, you should. You killed it."
"I know it," she cried. "What do you want?"
"Did you feel better?" I shouted at her. "With your finger inside? Did you feel better inside?"
Her face took on a peculiar expression. "It felt a bit like jam," she said. "But it was sweeter than that." Her face went quickly from a smile to a frown. "But I can't talk about it again."
She stared right at me for a long while, and I stared back, hard. I would not blink my eyes though they burned. I tried to make her face disappear by staring hard and blurring her.
Then she grabbed onto my arm and dug her fingers in, gripped me tight in her talons. I saw the skin around her nails turning white, then red, and stood still as stone, like I was waiting for something to happen. And then it did: a drop of blood oozed from beneath the finger where she used to wear a ring, on the finger that implied a wedding. A drop of blood came sliding out and then my sister broke her grip.
"Oh my god," she exclaimed, for a moment stunned.
"Yes, look. Look at what you've done."
She covered her eyes. "No, I can't see a thing," she said to me, shaking. "I don't know anything. You're on your own this time."
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