Pseudonym note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Mahalath” is a pseudonym.
I have one precious little sister. Let’s call her Susannah.
When I was nine, I decided I’d had enough of my parent’s rules, belittling, and humiliations. It was time for a rebellion. In my childish ignorance, I fashioned a sword and shield out of paper to fight them. My isolated little brain convinced me that these were effective weapons. At nine years old, I had no real concept of reality because I’d never seen it.
My little sister Susannah came along and saw what I was doing. Seven at the time, she wanted to help her older sister out. So I made her her own sword and shield, coloring with red markers along the edges of the blade. “That’s blood. So they’ll be afraid of us,” I explained. She nodded solemnly.
Our eight o’clock bedtime was deemed the perfect time for our small coup. When summoned upstairs for our mandated bedtime prayers, we charged up to our bedroom with weaponry at hand. Our parents watched us approach with a sort of bored amusement. But I meant business, and I said so: “This is a revolution! You have to do what we say or we’ll kill you!” Pointing my flimsy sword at their noses, I gave them fearsome glares.
My dear, darling little sister was unfazed by all of this. She ran up to our mother and sat in her lap. “See, Mommy! I have a sword! See all of the blood!”
“Susannah,” I shrieked, “get back here! We’re rebelling!”
Fortunately for us, our parents saw this display as a cute little historical reenactment and laughed it off and put us to bed. Indeed, as I look back on the incident, I find it sort of funny. But I was serious at the time. I was deadly serious.
My sister Susannah was sometimes my greatest enemy, sometimes my only friend.
At times we helped each other survive the isolating, emotionally abusive environment that was our home. Yet at other times we turned on each other, every girl for herself, and used the other as a tool to gain at least a little sanity. But she will always be my sister, and I will always love her.
I whispered her stories at night that I made up myself to help her fall asleep. We created word games and did shadow puppets, always listening for the footsteps at the door so we could duck under the covers and pretend we were asleep.
When our parents demanded confessions for real or imagined offenses, we’d whisper in our room again, this time to decide who would take the fall. Often I would bear the burden as the oldest, but both of us sacrificed months of television and rare social events so that the other would walk free.
When my parents would fight, my sister Susannah would run to me. She would sob and I would rub her back. I’d tell her it was all okay when it all was horribly wrong. When they came with their fake apologies and forced grins, I’d wrap my arms around her and have to be pried off.
I taught her how to sneak food from the fridge when we were hungry and steal answer keys when our mother refused to give us help with our schoolwork. We sneak-watched forbidden TV shows and cracked computer passwords to search the internet. When I got a job and was denied access to my money, I figured out a way to sneak money out. I’d ride to the gas station just outside our subdivision on my bike when my parents were at work and buy sweets. We’d eat them in secret and hide the wrappers. I’d also visit the library box in the next subdivision over and obtain precious books. Books that didn’t have the swear words whited out, books with magic, books with African American protagonists. We’d devour them eagerly and then hide them in a secret drawer.
It wasn’t always smiles and games, however. It was true that we knew each other’s secrets, but they were often used as blackmail material in our spats. That I had read Harry Potter in secret, Susannah had a crush, I was cheating my way through French and she through science: these were often whispered in each other’s ears to get our way. But we never told these secrets, because we knew if one of us let a precious secret out, our own would be forfeit.
It was an endless stalemate.
We were both very good at manipulation. I would threaten her dolls if she didn’t let me copy off her history, she would call me names and poisonous insults for a turn at the forbidden cable show while I kept watch. I remember both of us hitting, damaging possessions, and stealing money from each other at ages when we should have known better. She went through a phase in her teen years where she enjoyed biting me. Later she switched to having me lie down and jumping on my back. I yelled at her, “forgot” to include her in hidden pleasures, and gave her the wrong answers for geography on purpose.
Today we are on good terms. I love her, and have come to a greater knowledge of this since moving across the country for college (and to get away from home). She, in turn, loves me in a sort of distant way. I fear a lot of the good feelings she has toward me are due to the presents I send in copious amounts and the valuable cultural information I pass on. (I can hardly blame her. I had that survival mindset, too!) But she does love me for more than that. I know it.
Many times at night I lie awake and worry. Is she okay? What does she do when our parents are fighting? Does she remember to change the channel to where it previously was before our parents return home? Can she make it through her science course? Will she even get out of there (I barely managed, and it was a huge fight.) ? Someday, will I have to rescue her?
Someday, my dear Susannah will be free. Whether she breaks out on her own or not, she’ll get to taste the real world, and I’m excited for that day. I’ll do whatever it takes to help her. I’m not going to wave paper swords around, but I will let her live with me if she wants, help her find a job, teach her how to make it in the world.
Susannah, if you ever read manage to read this, take heart. It gets better.