'Prairie Wind'

Sarahlynn Lester


      I'm so grown up that it's hard to remember what it was like to be a child, to think like that; all I have left are images: images of me and the way I saw things. Safe standing on the woodpile behind the billowing sheets on the laundry line, hidden. Alone, always alone, trying to hide from everyone, from my sister, for space and freedom.

      I used to play underneath the slide on my swing set. I sat on the broken porch swing that I'd dragged around back, careful of all the brittle splinters, I remember. And my big red winter coat that was just like Santa's you know pulled up to my chin despite the heat. The memory is from the picture in the old album, but the face haunts me, the huge dark eyes accusing. My face: skinny and white-pale with stringy wild blowing black hair all around over a summer tank top in the light green that was like a hand-me-down, not like lime sherbet at all.

      We lived in a big old green house. Green like the lima beans that I hated and Sam hid at the bottom of her milk glass. I much preferred to look at the big stone church next door, my personal playground. It wasn't green, just gray and warm and stone. The roof was covered by water for days after each rain; I'd watch the water evaporate while sitting on our parents' bed. It was a big bed, framed by huge windows looking east.

      I never took a boy there, not ever. Sam did, though. Sam did it lots. I think it meant something to her. I chose other places. The church once, of course. And the backs of all the cars. But that was during 'my phase,' you know, because I'm not really like that. Big hair and leather and wild eyes. We both went through that phase, but not together. The most important time for me, the most important place was the one morning out on the Kanza prairie, watching the sun come up, way east of town. I wonder if Sam ever went there.

      It wasn't the boy I was with, I suppose, it was more the situation. The sun came up so slowly while I watched, warming the world with its breath, stirring the wind that blew the prairie grass all around me, singing a song that only I could hear. I've never in my life felt so alone. The wind kept blowing long after the sun was gone, and it was still blowing when I left town, gusted away to college. The mighty wind that blessed the prairie smelled green and dry, but away at school the wind was heavier with the mineral scent of wet earth.

      I don't think Sam ever even noticed the wind. It was always there for me, after I noticed it on the prairie that first time. I'd be walking into the school with the morning sun warm on my face and my friends calling and swarming all around me but I had my eyes closed, and I was feeling the wind whipping around me, blowing my hair into a wild dance, separating me from everyone else.

      Sam separated herself, I guess. When I picture her, I don't see her in the middle of a big group, but I don't see her alone on a hill, either. I see her sprawled beneath all the blankets on her bed in her blue room. I think the blankets held her there, or maybe it was the blueness. In my memory it was never sunny there. When she was little, her room was yellow and wood and I'd go watch the morning sun come up from the foot of her bed, but only when she was fast asleep. Then she got older, and I didn't feel comfortable in her room anymore, even when she was sleeping. I didn't want to see her sleeping, so vulnerable. And we moved, and her new room was full of blue and clouds. Mist and no sun. The new neighborhood was crowded; there was no space to run, and no room for the wind.

      It's ironic because that's the time when Sam took up cross country and track and ran faster than I ever could. And I stopped being quite so skinny. I'd come home to visit sometimes, and even though I was getting bigger and bigger while Sam was shrinking away, she never saw me. It depressed me to be in that cloudy gray house. It depressed me to feel her casual cruelty, even when she was silent. I'd drive into the city with its crowds and tall buildings just to feel the wind whipping around the corners and howling through the alleys, just to feel alone. I'd stop sometimes, by myself on the shore of the great lake, the wind lashing my hair against my face like scores of tiny whips and smelling gray and industrial.

      I know it sounds weird that I wanted to feel alone when I was home. I guess the alone is more comfortable than the hurt of not being close. The wind would isolate me, drown out my thoughts. At school I was always alone, and I suppose it comforted me. Of course, Sam went away to school someplace else, far away from home, farther away than me, and she was never alone. Mom and Dad were always full of stories about her friends and her new life when I called them from school.

      Sam was like the central figure in a square dance. A long series of partners would come through, swing her 'round, then rotate away, leaving behind a baggie of this or a vial of that. As long as she was moving, though, no one noticed.

      I felt like it took me forever to finish school and move on. But Sam felt like college was rushing by and she never had a moment to herself. She wouldn't have thought of me anyway.

      And I guess that's really it, isn't it? The moving on. Because I never really did, and it seems like Sam never had to. Move on from what? She'd probably have to ask, because how could she miss what she didn't notice in the first place?

      It wasn't just that the wind spoke to me and Sam never noticed. I wanted her to notice me and feel like I felt, but she never would, and I'd never ask. So here we are.

      Sam is three years younger than me, but sometimes I think she's far older. Even when she was young and pudgy, she was weightless. When she grew up and became skinny as a waif, she looked like a scarecrow with full lips, ready to float away at the slightest breeze. The worst part was that she looked like she wouldn't mind.

      I was always afraid of becoming unattached to everything around me. I have always been too involved in everything, never refusing anyone anything. Sam had sex because she liked it. I have sex because I hate to say no, and because it makes me feel connected for a few precious moments. Most of all, I have sex because I love the heavy feeling of a male body pressing mine down, holding me on the bed, keeping me still. Perhaps in some odd fashion, it's my way of keeping my sister with me, by doing something that she liked to do and could do so casually.

      Jealousy? Of course. I was an only child for almost three years before she came, and they all tell me that I resented her from the first. Perhaps. But what I've always been most jealous of had nothing to do with her being my sister. It was always her ability to not care, to have this painless distance. What would it be like to be able to act without fear of the consequences?

      Who knows? Not even Sam, I guess, because it turns out that she cared a lot, cared the whole time. Otherwise, she wouldn't have done this to herself, right? She just cared about different stuff than I did. And I guess that doesn't make it any better.

      She cared, but she never cared about me the way I cared about her, so in some small way, it doesn't matter what she thought, because she wasn't thinking about me, so it still hurts.

            One college summer she kept her diary on my computer. Did she want me to find it or did she just not care? I opened up the first day's entry. "I hate my big sister. She's such a fat pig." Ah.

      There were moments when we were more connected. I remember warm, fuzzy times: climbing like monkeys on the front of the church, rollerblading late at night, one train ride halfway across the country from her dorm room to mine after she'd had a nasty break up. These memories are like still photos, memories that stand out from the rest of our lives together and apart.

      Something I remember from being a child: I remember feeling isolated, standing alone and quiet, watching Sam chattering happily to herself with all the adults smiling down at her. She never needed me. Never asked me for anything. But I guess she was asking the whole time. I was too busy listening to my own voice, listening to the wind, and I just didn't hear.

      I can picture her right now, smoking. Her lips are the only part of her body that have remained full and fleshy. He cheeks seem hollow and sunken in as she drags hard on the cigarette. It looks like a caricature of my sister, a shell of herself. She blows out the smoke from her lungs and the wind picks it up and takes it away, while she watches. I wonder if it's her soul that's blowing away and I wonder if she even cares.

      I shouldn't even say it. Sometimes I think it would have been easier if she had died. When I am feeling melancholy, I could say, "Oh, my sister died four years ago this month." That seems more appropriate to the trauma than what I usually say when someone sees a photo of Sam and me:

      "Is that your sister? She's gorgeous!"

      "Yes. She was married in May."